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ONTARIO: Premier asks doctors, can schools open safely given COVID-19?

Ontario schools have been shut since April, when they were the sources of more COVID-19 outbreaks than workplaces or any other location, the premier said

TORONTO — The impact of COVID-19 variants and relatively low rates of vaccinated teachers and students raises serious concerns about reopening schools, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Thursday, as he sought last-minute advice on whether to resume in-person learning for the final month of the academic year.

In an open letter, which sparked criticism the premier was ducking his decision-making responsibility,  Ford asked dozens of recipients whether returning to physical classrooms could be done safely. 

"Our government understands the benefits of having children learning in class," he said. "At the same time, our top priority is to ensure any decision we make on school reopening is based on sound scientific advice, consensus and considers potential or future risks faced by students and staff."

Ontario schools have been shut since April, when they were the sources of more COVID-19 outbreaks than workplaces or any other location, the premier said. While provincial case counts have fallen significantly in recent weeks, experts project a jump of up to 4,000 cases by the end of July if schools open in June.

The letter poses seven COVID-19 safety-related questions for doctors, scientists, public health authorities and teacher unions. It notes a lack of consensus on how, when and whether schools should reopen.

The letter cites a recent British study that a single vaccine dose was only 33 per cent effective against the B.1.617.2 variant first identified in India.

"What makes all this new information concerning is that … only 41 per cent of teachers and education workers are vaccinated compared to 62 per cent of the general adult population in Ontario," Ford wrote.

In addition, many students are not yet vaccinated at all due to a lack in supply, he said.

Many doctors, experts and parents have urged an immediate school reopening amid the decline in cases, saying it's important for children's mental health. Ford acknowledged the concern as he cited safety fears.

New Democrat education critic, Marit Stiles, accused Ford of sitting on his hands for many months.

"It's the end of May, and just now Mr. Ford is asking health and education experts for feedback?" Stiles said. "Doug Ford needs to stop treating kids' education as an afterthought."

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner accused Ford of "fully abdicating his responsibility" by looking for a consensus.

"Being premier isn’t about being popular," Schreiner said. "It’s about making the tough decisions but Ford continues to punt responsibility when it matters most."

Ford said he wants feedback from the letter recipients before 5 p.m. on Friday.

— With files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2021.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press