Schools across Ontario will reopen for in-person learning next Monday, a spokesperson for Premier Doug Ford has confirmed.
“As planned and previously announced, students will return to in-person learning on Monday, January 17,” Ford’s director of media relations Ivana Yelich said in an email.
The Toronto Star first reported the news on Monday night.
Last week, amid surging COVID-19 cases fuelled by the Omicron variant, the Ontario government moved all publicly funded and private schools to remote learning.
Ford said the government couldn’t guarantee schools would be fully staffed, with so many teachers expected to be off sick. The schools were expected to be closed for at least two weeks.
Ford’s Jan. 3 announcement came just days after Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said the return to school would be pushed back but would still be in-person. Moore had said the province wanted to give schools extra time to provide N95 masks to staff and to deploy 3,000 HEPA filter units.
Ford had said schools would reopen for in-person learning on Jan. 17, however many wondered if that date would be delayed.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce, meanwhile, has not spoken at a news conference since before the province announced the latest school closure, and he had none scheduled as of late Monday evening.
A written statement from Lecce on Monday said the government’s “priority is getting students back to class.”
Lecce then issued another statement touting a recent agreement with the Ontario Teachers’ Federation — allowing retired educators to work more days this school year — saying it would help run classes in-person.
“We need staff in order to continue providing live teacher-led remote learning and safely operate our schools when students return to in-person learning,” Lecce’s statement read.
Chris Cowley, president of the teachers’ federation, said in an email on Monday that around 60 out of 142,000 retired members “have expressed interest” in an increased re-employment rule since September.
Calls continued on Monday for greater transparency about steps to improve school safety.
At a news conference following a meeting of opposition politicians and health-sector representatives, critics expressed concerns over rising hospitalizations from COVID-19 and the lack of data on virus cases in schools and child-care centres. The government stopped publishing that information amid skyrocketing case numbers and reduced access to virus tests.
In preparation for the return to in-person learning, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canada’s largest school district which serves more than 240,000 students, said it has shipped out approximately 600,000 N95 masks to staff ahead of the return.
TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said three-ply masks have also been distributed to all schools for students to use.
Bird told CBC News the school board will be receiving 300 more HEPA filters in addition to its more than 16,000 filters already in schools.
Board grappling with issue of transparency
But with the added caveat of schools no longer having to report COVID-19 cases to the education ministry along with limited testing, Bird said the school board has to figure out how to be as transparent as possible with limited resources.
“We’re trying to grapple with PCR, rapid tests, do we report symptomatic people that we think probably have COVID-19 but we have no confirmation of that?” Bird said.
“How do we be transparent with our families and staff while at the same time trying to provide some level of accuracy … that’s what we’re looking at this week. To figure out exactly what that will look like.”
Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, said Monday that in order to prioritize schools, the province should have brought in more closures to rein in Omicron’s spread. Since that has not happened, she said reopening schools “will exacerbate the situation” in hospitals.
“It’s not about the kids. It’s about the system and what the system can cope [with],” she said, noting that schools could have been made safer earlier in the pandemic with mandatory vaccinations for teachers and access to N95 masks.
“It’s a problem that we created,” she said. “I don’t think we can do it in seven days.”