Premier Doug Ford huddled with his ministers for a rare Sunday cabinet meeting to debate imposing new restrictions — and possibly further delaying the start of school — due to skyrocketing COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant, sources told the Star.
With 16,714 new cases reported Sunday — a number that remained high despite new limits on PCR lab tests — the province also saw an increase of 10 patients with COVID in intensive care, to a total of 224.
Although schools are set to reopen on Wednesday, the province has been urged by some to impose new measures to help keep kids in class, while others have raised concerns about students returning right away.
A source told the Star late Sunday that delaying the school reopening date is now under consideration.
The possibility is sure to cause much confusion for parents, given that chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore announced the Jan. 5 back-to-school date only last week.
Both Moore and Education Minister Stephen Lecce, along with a host of pediatric experts, have repeatedly said that schools should be the first to open and the last to close down during the pandemic.
Education sources have told the Star that Ford wanted to keep child-care centres closed, and kids in kindergarten and Grade 1 home for two weeks to mitigate any post-holiday surge in cases. (Children under five are not eligible to be vaccinated.) But Moore and the province’s science table of advisers resisted that move, sources said, and it was dropped.
Some of the measures now available to the provincial government include further limiting social gatherings, more caps on capacity at all retail stores and personal care services, and also setting maximum numbers for all religious services. Given an anticipated rise in hospitalizations, the province could also put non-urgent surgeries and procedures on hold, although there is already a huge backlog for MRIs and CT scans.
Amid speculation of capacity limits and that restaurants and bars could be closed for indoor dining, Dan Kelly of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business took to social media to say that “thousands of small businesses won’t survive another round of lockdowns. Unlike March 2020, many are incredibly weakened after 2 years of painful restrictions. The average small firm has taken on $170K in COVID related debt. We cannot keep doing this.”
New Ontario data released last week showed the risk of hospitalization or death from Omicron is 54 per cent lower than Delta. Hospitals have also been told to now differentiate between patients who are admitted for COVID and those who are hospitalized for other reasons and then happen to test positive for COVID, to help ensure more accurate statistics.
Moore announced last week that schools would open Wednesday, N95 masks would be provided to teachers and 3,000 additional HEPA air filter units would be distributed to schools. Some high-contact extracurricular activities are also to be put on hold.
The Ministry of Education has also asked boards to accommodate as best they can any new requests for kids to move to online learning.
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On Sunday, Ottawa medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches penned an open letter saying there were “many questions and concerns about the return to school planned for many next week” but that she supports the move because “children and youth have fallen behind in social and educational development. They have more mental health challenges — depression, anxiety, eating disorders, hospitalizations included” and because parents are also stressed.
Even though the “level of the COVID-19 Omicron variant in our community is very high … the information we have from throughout the pandemic is that schools being open is not a key reason for making the pandemic spread worse. In Ottawa, in December, with the Omicron variant circulating, the data showed that the COVID-19 rates grew in the community much faster than in the school population. Many of the introductions of COVID-19 into schools were related to transmission from social and sports activities outside of school.”
Etches said she is “discussing with the province the urgent need to pause other activities to keep schools the priority.”
Dr. Peter Jüni, the scientific director of the province’s COVID-19 science table, previously told the Star that schools could actually be safer places for kids given they are supervised, cohorted and masked all day long, whereas at home they may be mixing with other kids for child care and not wearing masks.
He also said that the province should not close schools to in-person learning before implementing other restrictions.
Toronto District School Board trustee Shelley Laskin sent out a newsletter to parents Sunday night, saying board staff worked throughout the weekend and that based on the most up-to-date information, schools would reopen Wednesday but child care and before- and after-school programs would resume as scheduled on Monday.
The board said it planned to have N95 masks for teachers by Wednesday, and “we were one of the first school boards to take ventilation seriously and the TDSB currently has more than 16,000 HEPA filters in all occupied learning spaces and additional units will be utilized to provide even greater coverage.”
The province is also providing “child-sized high-quality three-ply cloth masks will continue to be provided, free of charge, to all students who need them,” she wrote.
The Toronto board has also mandated vaccines for all staff, and, like all boards, is pushing for COVID vaccines to be added to the list of required shots for students.
The board is holding a special meeting on Tuesday to answer questions about school reopening.
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