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Ontario’s top doctor wants students back in classrooms before provincial reopening

Dr. David Williams made the comments on the same day as a group of researchers studying the effects of the pandemic on children warned of "a generational catastrophe"

May 26, 2021  The Canadian Press

TORONTO — Ontario’s top doctor said he would like to see students return to their classrooms before the province starts reopening in mid-June.

Dr. David Williams made the comments on the same day as a group of researchers studying the effects of the pandemic on children warned of “a generational catastrophe.”

Williams said most public health units in the province support the reopening of schools, which have been shut to in-person learning since early- to mid-April.

“My position has been always, like our public health measures table and our medical officers of health, that feel that schools should be the last to close and the first to open,” Williams told a news conference.

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“Ideally, I’d like the schools open before we enter Step 1 of our exit strategy.”

Williams said he has heard from many public health agencies, including those in the hard-hit Toronto area, who want to see schools reopen.

Cases of COVID-19 continue to fall in the third wave of the pandemic while Ontario remains under a stay-at-home order. Vaccinations continue to surge with more than 8.2 million people receiving their first shot.

Williams said the situation is different now compared to when the province shuttered schools in early April.

“We’re confident that we can be supportive of making sure the schools are safe for everyone, including students and teachers and other staff working there,” Williams said.

Last week, the province faced fierce criticism for failing to address whether schools would reopen as it detailed how the rest of the economy would emerge from the stay-at-home order.

Tracy Vaillancourt, an education professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in mental health research on children, wrote a letter to Premier Doug Ford and the province calling for the reopening of schools.

“We are on the cusp of a generational catastrophe,” Vaillancourt and 14 other researchers, who are part of a team working on a report about the effects of the pandemic on children, wrote.

“Our professional consensus is that these shutdowns have negatively affected all aspects of child development, that extend well beyond the classroom.”

There have been several reports, including from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, that suggest mental health in children has declined during the pandemic.

Vaillancourt echoed those concerns, but also said schools offer much more than help for mental health afflictions. They allow some students to eat better and more consistently through various programs.

“We also recommend that we prioritize the safe reopening of all extracurricular activities like sports, and we work to ensure that they stay open,” Vaillancourt said.

Teacher unions said last week they support reopening schools, but wanted the province to address their concerns to make them safer.

Those concerns included smaller class sizes along with better testing and contact tracing.

William said he’d also be open to a regional approach to allow some school boards to return to in-person class sooner than others.

Williams says there will be a decision on schools soon.