Open schools on a regional basis: Ontario Science Advisory Table

The science table said schools should be the last sector to close and the first sector to reopen

The province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table has weighed in on whether schools can safely reopen and the verdict is a nod in favour on a regional basis.

The science table, comprised of medical associations, medical experts and hospitals across the province released a statement Saturday in response to Premier Doug Ford’s letter to school boards and other stakeholders asking for their input on whether schools should reopen.

The table said it maintains its longstanding belief that schools should be the last sector to close and the first sector to reopen.

“We believe that Ontario can re-open schools safely on a regional basis to mitigate the significant short and long-term harms arising from school closures, while managing the risk of virus transmission in this sector,” the science table said in its statement.

On Friday, in a joint statement, the union for the province’s teachers urged Ford to convene an advisory table of education stakeholders to address the health and safety needs of schools and the learning challenges faced by students because of the pandemic.

Students in Ontario schools have been out of class since mid-April and have been learning online.

The science table argues that school closures during the pandemic “create harm” by deteriorating children and youth’s mental health.

“This deterioration is now evident in the form of increased ambulatory care use and hospital admissions, most poignantly for children and youth with eating disorders,” the table said.

“We believe these mental health indicators represent the tip of the iceberg and that children and youth mental health will present significant long-term challenges during our recovery from the pandemic.”

The science table also said school closures create “ripple effects” for both children and families as the social and economic benefits of education are impacted, such as losses of skills development, lifetime earnings, social connections, and for some, missing meals and other critical health services.

“Like so much of the pandemic, these harms and missed benefits are inequitable: those whom the pandemic is hitting hardest are also hardest hit by school closures,” the table said.

The group had previously said that reopening schools could result in a six to 11 per cent increase in virus transmission, which would be small and manageable.

Ontario’s chief medical officer of health has also given the thumbs up to the reopening of schools as have many medical officers of health.

Simcoe Muskoka Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Charles Gardner, said earlier this week he supports returning to school.

“We believe that our rates are down sufficiently that we can follow up with cases and their contacts,” he said.

“We noted that all the way through the pandemic there’s been very limited amount of transmission in schools and many more exposures happening in schools versus transmissions in schools, and the exposures are cases that have occurred out of schools elsewhere in the community or in the home.”

During a media briefing Thursday, the premier expressed concern about reopening schools because of more contagious COVID variants.

He said his government was shown modelling that suggests daily case counts could rise to between 2,000 and 4,000 by late July if schools are fully reopened.

The science table in its statement acknowledged that the variant “presents a significant unknown” and that the province should continue administering first vaccine doses and accelerate second doses for those most vulnerable to COVID-19 to combat virus spread. The group also said other sectors of the economy should remain closed until they are reopened by the province’s framework.

As well, the science table said the government should be working over the summer to ensure schools are safe and ready for students to return in September.