Ontario schools will reopen for in-person learning on Monday, premier's office says

Schools across Ontario will reopen for in-person learning on Monday, Jan. 17, a spokesperson for Premier Doug Ford has confirmed.

Schools had been closed since the holidays because province couldn't guarantee staffing

An empty hallway at Wexford Collegiate School for Arts in Toronto on Aug. 27, 2020. Ontario students will be able to return to class in person on Jan. 17. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Schools across Ontario will reopen for in-person learning next Monday, a spokesperson for Premier Doug Ford has confirmed.

"As planned and previously announced, students will return to in-person learning on Monday, January 17," Ford's director of media relations Ivana Yelich said in an email.

The Toronto Star first reported the news on Monday night.

Last week, amid surging COVID-19 cases fuelled by the Omicron variant, the Ontario government moved all publicly funded and private schools to remote learning.

Ford said the government couldn't guarantee schools would be fully staffed, with so many teachers expected to be off sick. The schools were expected to be closed for at least two weeks.

Ford's Jan. 3 announcement came just days after Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said the return to school would be pushed back but would still be in-person. Moore had said the province wanted to give schools extra time to provide N95 masks to staff and to deploy 3,000 HEPA filter units.

Ford had said schools would reopen for in-person learning on Jan. 17, however many wondered if that date would be delayed.

Teachers unions say they weren't consulted

Meanwhile, the heads of two of the province's largest teachers unions say they weren't consulted about the decision, and are left wondering how schools are any safer than they were last week.

Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, told CBC News on Tuesday that the province should have given education workers a heads-up.

"We had to find out via social media," Brown said. "The courtesy wasn't extended to us. It really sent the message to education workers that they're not valued. I think a critical decision like this should have been communicated to us."

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said she similarly found out about the decision online, and doesn't know what metrics the government is basing it on.

Some educators are excited to be going back, she said. "But that is definitely not the majority of voices I'm hearing," Littlewood said.

"I don't know how the government is saying everybody go back is the right answer right now without any of the data to back up a decision like that."

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Health Minister Christine Elliott was asked what health indicators the province used to make its decision to send students back to class. She did not provide such details, but said the province is doing "everything it can" to make things safe for students.

Minister to speak at news conference Wednesday

Education Minister Stephen Lecce, meanwhile, has not spoken at a news conference since the provincial government announced the latest school closure. The province announced Tuesday that Lecce and Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore would be making an announcement on the "preparations underway for the return to in-person learning" on Wednesday afternoon.

In a statement sent to CBC News on Tuesday, Lecce said officials are "doing as much as we can to improve ventilation, provide high quality PPE and expand access to vaccinations" before kids go back to class.

He cited examples like the shipment of millions of N95 masks for staff and three-ply masks for students, as well as accelerated access to booster shots for staff, and more standalone HEPA filters being sent to schools.

"Recognizing the challenges posed by the Omicron, these measures will help stabilize the school workforce as we continue to do everything we can to keep kids learning," he said.

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce speaks at a news conference at St. Robert Catholic High School in Toronto on Aug. 4. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

In a previous statement, Lecce touted a recent agreement with the Ontario Teachers' Federation — allowing retired educators to work more days this school year — saying it would help run classes in-person.

Chris Cowley, president of the teachers' federation, said in an email on Monday that around 60 out of 142,000 retired members "have expressed interest" in an increased re-employment rule since September.

Brown told CBC News on Tuesday that retired educators are not "jumping to return to a COVID environment," as some people just don't feel safe.

"I don't think that's a good strategy," she said. "I don't think it's going to achieve what they need."

Calls continued on Monday for greater transparency about steps to improve school safety.

At a news conference following a meeting of opposition politicians and health-sector representatives, critics expressed concerns over rising hospitalizations from COVID-19 and the lack of data on virus cases in schools and child-care centres. The government stopped publishing that information amid skyrocketing case numbers and reduced access to virus tests.

WATCH | Toronto District School Board spokesperson on preparing for return to classrooms:

Ontario schools prepare to return to class on Monday

1 year ago
Duration 9:27
Canada's largest school board, the Toronto District School Board, says there are new safety measures in place for children's return to the classroom, but the TDSB is still struggling with how to count COVID-19 case numbers and let parents know. (Frédéric Pepin/CBC/Radio-Canada)

In preparation for the return to in-person learning, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canada's largest school district which serves more than 240,000 students, said it has shipped out approximately 600,000 N95 masks to staff ahead of the return.

TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said three-ply masks have also been distributed to all schools for students to use. 

Bird told CBC News the school board will be receiving 300 more HEPA filters in addition to its more than 16,000 filters already in schools.

Board grappling with issue of transparency

But with the added caveat of schools no longer having to report COVID-19 cases to the education ministry along with limited testing, Bird said the school board has to figure out how to be as transparent as possible with limited resources.

"We're trying to grapple with PCR, rapid tests, do we report symptomatic people that we think probably have COVID-19 but we have no confirmation of that?" Bird said.

"How do we be transparent with our families and staff while at the same time trying to provide some level of accuracy … that's what we're looking at this week. To figure out exactly what that will look like."

Guidelines for accessing PCR tests

New school guidance from the Ontario government says that only certain students and teachers who show symptoms of COVID-19 will have access to PCR tests when schools reopen.

A Ministry of Health document says take-home PCR self-collection kits will only be provided to elementary and secondary students as well as education staff who become symptomatic while at school.

The test kits will only be given to students or staff who have fever or chills, a cough, shortness of breath or a loss of taste or smell, or two or more of the less common symptoms, such as a runny nose, sore throat or muscle aches.

The ministry says PCR kits will not be provided to entire cohorts or school populations.

The document says those waiting for the result of a COVID-19 test, or who cannot access a test, must isolate at home regardless of vaccination status, along with others in their household.

Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, said Monday that in order to prioritize schools, the province should have brought in more closures to rein in Omicron's spread. Since that has not happened, she said reopening schools "will exacerbate the situation" in hospitals.

"It's not about the kids. It's about the system and what the system can cope [with]," she said, noting that schools could have been made safer earlier in the pandemic with mandatory vaccinations for teachers and access to N95 masks.

"It's a problem that we created," she said. "I don't think we can do it in seven days."

With files from Adam Carter and The Canadian Press