Students must return to class in September barring “only the most catastrophic of circumstances,” according to a report penned by a group featuring the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, as well as physicians from prominent children’s hospitals across the province.
The science brief, which was released Monday afternoon, was backed by SickKids in Toronto and CHEO in Ottawa, as well as pediatricians and epidemiologists across the province, plus experts in mental health, Indigenous health, and air quality.
The report states remote learning exacerbated students’ educational inequities and hurt their access to physical activity, social interactions, and to much-needed food programs.
Ontario lost the most time to provincewide school closures — 19 weeks in total — than any other province or territory in Canada, and virtual learning put some students at risk of poorer mental health, eating disorders, abuse and having serious medical conditions go untreated for longer periods of time, the group adds.
COVID levels low, vaccinations rising
As of Monday, more than 61 per cent of Ontarians 12 and older were fully vaccinated and the number should continue to grow over the next several weeks.
With higher vaccination rates, the group points out the probability of severe infections and hospitalizations should remain low, and students should return to the classroom in almost any scenario, as long as certain permanent and temporary measures are taken.
Suggested permanent measures include vaccinating all eligible residents, staying home when sick, having adequate indoor air quality, proper cleaning, and good hand hygiene, even after the pandemic ends.
The report recommends temporary measures like contact tracing and testing, and possibly wearing masks, but stated there would be no need for physical distancing or cohorting.
For moderate to high-risk scenarios — when COVID levels are increasing to the point where people could be hospitalized or levels are already high — the group recommends elementary students wear masks and be placed in cohorts, but would not need to physically distance.
High school students would need to wear masks, but cohorts would not be necessary.
The only scenario where a school should be closed — with students learning from home — is when there is a potentially catastrophic scenario where it’s clear students or people in the broader community could experience serious symptoms or death related to children attending in-person classes, or when a student faces more risks attending in-person classes than learning remotely.
Despite the best- and worst-case scenarios, the report points out the eradication of COVID-19 is unlikely and even if viral levels remain low or continue to drop across the province, the return to the classroom will not be normal — at least not right away.
There will be a period of adjustment for both students and staff, it says, in that some may be anxious returning to the classroom, while some may have fallen behind over the past year and need extra help catching up.
In the spring, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced the option to use online learning would be available for the entire 2021-2022 school year.