Top doctor wants London schools to reopen, but union cautions over safety concerns

In light of inquiries from the province on whether or not schools should reopen before the academic year ends, most local stakeholders support welcoming students back, while a union leader is concerned about safety at schools.

London's English school boards say they're ready to reopen once they get the go-ahead

Medical officer of health, along with other stakeholders, argue even a brief return to in-person learning will help with childrens' mental wellbeing. (Colin Butler/CBC)

Schools should reopen to in-person learning, even if it's just for a few weeks, the London area's medical officer of health says. 

On Thursday, against the backdrop of mounting speculation around reopening schools, Premier Doug Ford penned a letter to 55 stakeholders, including medical experts, health units, children's hospitals and teachers' unions, asking them to weigh in on how Ontario could go about reopening schools before the end of the school year.

"Ultimately, this is our government's decision, but in light of the foregoing, and the diversity of perspectives on the safety of reopening schools, I am asking for your views on a number of issues," Ford said in the letter.

Locally there's strong support for reopening by the Middlesex-London Health Unit's (MLHU) top health official. 

"The schools reopening would have a massive health benefit," said Dr. Chris Mackie, the region's the medical officer of health.

"You really have a crisis of mental health right now in schools for children and families, so I understand that the premier has a lot of things to consider on this. It must be a very difficult decision, but certainly, as a medical officer, from a health perspective, I strongly support schools reopening as soon as possible."

Even two weeks of in-person learning would make a difference for students and families, Mackie said, adding he and other medical officers of healths reiterated their strong consensus on reopening schools during a conversation with Ontario's chief medical officer of health.

Meanwhile, Mayor Ed Holder said whatever the province decides to do, what Londoners want the most is certainty and clarity on what to expect.

"If we're going to reopen, so be it, but let's know that. If we are going to close until September, so be it, but let's know that ... but what's paramount, be it June or September, is that the health of our students has to be top of mind," Holder said, urging children 12 and older to get their COVID-19 vaccine. 

School boards ready, teachers' union wants to stay the course

The Thames Valley District School Board and the London District Catholic School Board say they will be ready to reopen if the province gives the order. Local transportation services said bus drivers are also ready to operate on short notice. (Sofia Rodriguez/CBC)

London's two largest school boards, the London District Catholic School Board (LDCSB) and Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB), said they're ready to reopen as soon as they get the green light from the province.

"We would absolutely welcome students back because we know how difficult it is," Linda Staudt, the director of education for the LDCSB, said Wednesday. "We've had experience pivoting and this would be a nice pivot back to full, in-person, so we've done it before and we know that we can do it again." 

Staudt echoed sentiments of worry for children's mental wellbeing if they continue in remote learning. 

"What these students are missing most right now is being together and that whole social-emotional piece is for us a really key consideration ... There's no doubt it's been difficult for students and their parents to be home all day without having that classroom atmosphere."

Mark Fisher, the education director for the TVDSB, said he's confident schools will be ready to reopen soon after the province and local health authorities say it's safe to do so.

But Craig Smith, the president of the local Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO), which represents more than 3,600 teachers, said while many teachers yearn to get back into the classrooms, there are mounting concerns around safety, especially without structural upgrades like improved ventilation and filtration systems in schools. 

"I'm not sure, at this point, that there's a sense that [reopening] is safe, given the fact that we could stay where we are, continue with what we're doing, and really focus on making sure that we start the next school year strong and that we don't have a repeat of this year," he said.

Smith said the uncertainty that's been building up for the past few weeks around the reopening has caused much distress to students, teachers and parents. 

"What we're hearing is that teachers do want to be back ... But I think there's a level of concern for a couple of reasons. One is the concern about the overall safety pieces, but it also points to where we are in the school year," he said.

"What we're doing in schools at this point, face-to-face or remotely, is essentially moving into culminating tasks ... If the idea, though, is they're thinking that the next three weeks is going to catch everybody up to where they would normally be, I think that's a dream, [but] we will do our work to the best of our ability."

The premier asked all 55 recipients of the letter to send their response to seven questions surrounding safety concerns for reopening by Friday at 5 p.m.