Who decided Ontario schools should stay closed? Government won’t say, but doctors call on Ford to reconsider

Toronto

While it's unclear who made the call, it is certain the decision has been controversial — with even top experts divided — and will mean students in Ontario, who had already been out of school for longer than any other students in the country by mid-May, will miss even more class time.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks at a news conference as Education Minister Stephen Lecce listens at Queen's Park in Toronto on March 20, 2020. Doctors are calling on Ford's government to reconsider the plan to keep schools closed.(Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

There is a simple question that the Ontario government won't answer about its decision to keep schools closed while opening patios and non-essential retail stores: Whose idea was it?

Normally, the government says it makes decisions on COVID-19 restrictions based on recommendations from Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams. When Premier Doug Ford announced in April that schools would close, for instance, he said the decision was made in consultation with the top doctor. Williams attended that press conference and took questions.

But when Ford announced that schools would stay shut for the remainder of the year, Williams wasn't there. And about a week earlier, when the doctor was asked about schools potentially re-opening, he said that his preference was for schools to open before businesses.

"As for the decision, when that's going to be, that really is … a decision that has to be made up at the cabinet level," he told reporters.

When CBC News emailed spokespeople for Education Minister Stephen Lecce and the Ministry of Health, which handles media questions for Williams, asking if the decision was based on the doctor's advice, no one responded.

Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer, and Premier Doug Ford trade places at the podium during a news conference at the Ontario legislature in Toronto on Nov. 25, 2020. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

While it's unclear who made the call, it is certain the decision has been controversial — with even top experts divided — and will mean students in Ontario, who had already been out of school for longer than any other students in the country by mid-May, will miss even more class time.

Doctors ask Ford to reconsider

On Wednesday, a letter signed by more than 400 doctors was sent to the Ontario government calling for a review of the information that informed the decision to keep schools closed, as well as guarantees that students registered for summer school will be able to attend in person and that all students will be able to attend in-person classes in September.

The doctors said that when Ford asked health experts for advice on what to do about schools on May 27, most supported reopening schools.

"You have chosen to ignore the answers you received and instead you have taken a stance in support of industry," the letter said.

"We have seen your government reconsider earlier decisions in their pandemic response plan. It is not too late to take a stance in support of Ontario's children and youth and set into motion their recovery process."

Other public health experts said they felt differently, like Peel Region's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Lawrence Loh. In a TV interview, he said he understood the premier's decision because of the increasing number of cases being attributed to the delta variant, also known as B.1.617, that was first identified in India.

Even Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, the group of public health experts who publish modelling and make recommendations to the government, did not reach a consensus.

The science table's official position, which was co-signed by other organizatons including SickKids and Children's Mental Health Ontario, was that schools should have reopened in regions where Dr. Williams and local authorities believed it was safe. But member David Fisman recused himself from that recommendation and wrote on Twitter that he agreed with Ford.

"That was the first time that David Fisman and I disagreed on an issue," Dr. Peter Jüni, the table's scientific director, told CBC News in an interview.

"This is not basically black or white. I can completely understand where David is coming from."

Dr. Peter Jüni, director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table, says the issue of schools closures is not black and white.(CBC)

Jüni said the polarization between people who believe schools are either evidently safe or evidently unsafe "didn't help the situation and essentially didn't help our children."

Schools are a risk, he said, but an overwhelming majority on the science table believed the risks could be mitigated. They also believed the benefits for children, mentally and socially, outweighed that risk.

On Monday, the table published a new paper on the wide-ranging impacts of school closures, which found that there's been a decrease in reporting of suspected abuse and neglect of children because school staff are the most likely group to report those concerns. The group also highlighted on Twitter that COVID-19-related school closures have lasted longer in Ontario than in any other province or territory, at 20 weeks total by mid-May.

Schools open in B.C.

In British Columbia, schools have been open since September.

B.C. Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said her government saw that the closures in 2020 caused increased stress, loneliness, isolation and mental health problems for students and made it a priority to avoid that this year.

"Experience had shown that it was really important to keep schools open," she told CBC News in an interview.

The government did a trial opening for a few weeks last June. It also created a steering committee that included public health experts from B.C.'s Centre for Disease Control, unions that represent teachers and other education workers,parents' and principals' associations, First Nations and Métis groups and the workplace safety agency. That committee has met once or twice a week since last summer to develop safety plans for schools, Whiteside said.

B.C. Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside says the loneliness, isolation and stress for students during closures in the spring of 2020 made it a priority to keep schools open during this school year. (Belle Puri/CBC)

"It really was an effort of … all of us against COVID," the minister said.

"We've put our trust in our public health officials to lead a science-based, evidence-based approach and … that I think has been a key part of our success so far."

'There's no comparison,' says Ford

When Ford made his announcement on the extended school closures, he was asked why Ontario couldn't open schools like other provinces did.

"There's no comparison.… We're 15 million people," he said.

The premier noted that the next-largest province is Quebec, which has just under 8.5 million people. That province closed and then reopened some schools on a region-by-region basis throughout the spring.

Ford also falsely stated that the science table's modelling showed that opening schools would lead to "thousands and thousands" of new cases.

Modelling released on May 20 said school openings would be associated with a six to 11 per cent bump in new cases. At the time of Ford's announcement, Ontario's seven-day average of new daily cases was 978.

"Yes, there was a small increase in the number of cases when we modelled that, but we would talk about something perhaps like 50 more cases per day," Jüni said, "We would be able to control that."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Emma Paling is a senior writer with CBC News in Toronto. She previously worked at HuffPost Canada, where she covered Ontario politics.

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