Ford hints at phased school reopening, with official announcement coming at 4 p.m.

Premier Doug Ford said some schools in southern Ontario may get the green light to resume in-class learning, while others will have to wait to ensure safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce is expected to announce on Wednesday at 4 p.m. when schools in 16 public health regions in the southern half of the province will reopen. CBC News will carry that news conference live in this story.

Ford wouldn’t say what thresholds the province is relying on to decide whether or not it’s safe to reopen schools, but he said he knows parents want their kids back in the classroom. 

It’s tough for parents, he said, adding: “Imagine having kids in your house all day long. You’re trying to work from home or even come home from work — it’s a real challenge.”

Despite that, Ford said the government still has to finalize a reopening date — he listed Feb. 8 and Feb. 10 as options — and suggested schools in some areas may have to wait longer before they can reopen. 

Lecce indicated on Monday that he would provide parents with “certainty” about reopening dates. The government says he will speak at 4 p.m. ET before taking questions from reporters.

“We want all students in all regions back to class,” the minister said in a tweet.

Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, has confirmed he will finalize his advice on Wednesday about how schools still closed can reopen safely during the pandemic. Williams is expected to join Lecce at the announcement.

City of Toronto officials, meanwhile, have moved their COVID-19 briefing to 5 p.m. ET, likely so officials can respond to the announcement. That announcement will also be carried live on this site.

This week’s COVID-19 case counts have been unreliable due to data entry issues — although there has been a decline in the number of cases in the wake of the province’s stay-at-home order. On Wednesday, the province recorded 1,172 new infections and reported 67 more deaths linked to the virus. 

All elementary and secondary school students began January with online learning as part of a provincial lockdown. Since then, the provincial government has taken a staggered approach to reopening physical classrooms.

Investments needed to make schools safe, NDP says

NDP education critic Marit Stiles said on Tuesday that the reopening must be accompanied by public health measures to ensure the schools can remain open. She said parents, education workers and students are eagerly awaiting the announcement.

“What I’m looking for, though, is not just clarity about when kids are going to be returning to school,” Stiles, a Toronto MPP, told CBC News.

Ontario NDP education critic Marit Stiles says the province has not spent the full $381 million of COVID-19 relief funds recently received from the federal government. (Government of Ontario)

“What I want is the government to spend the dollars that they have been hoarding on action. Small class sizes, paid sick leave, in-school testing — anything less is a recipe for future school closures.”

Stiles said the province has not spent the full $381 million of COVID-19 relief funds recently received from the federal government.

She said investments are needed to keep schools safe because of high daily case counts and new COVID-19 variants in circulation. Ventilation in schools should be improved and education workers should be vaccinated as front-line workers, she added.

“The success of the announcement really is going to depend on what investment and action this government is willing to take to ensure that our schools are safe when they reopen,” Stiles said. “Anything less than that will be a failure.”

Province has said it will expand testing

On Monday, Lecce said the province plans to expand COVID-19 testing for students and that it will allow school boards to bring in student teachers to fill supply roles as more schools reopen amid the second wave of the pandemic. 

Officials said the targeted testing will be available in all public health units where students have returned to class. They said they expect that Ontario can complete up to 25,000 laboratory-processed and 25,000 on-site, rapid antigen tests per week but offered no timeline on how long it could take to get to that level.

Expansion of the testing program accompanies the injection of another $381 million that Ottawa recently released as part of Phase 2 of the federal Safe Return to Class Fund. A previous $381 million in federal funds for school reopenings came last August.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, and Lecce walk in a hallway at Father Leo J. Austin Catholic Secondary School in Whitby, Ont., in July 2020. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

On Jan. 11, students resumed in-class learning in all northern Ontario public health units. On Jan. 25, students in some areas of southern Ontario went back to in-person class. 

On Feb. 1, students in four public health units — Eastern Ontario, Middlesex-London, Ottawa and Southwestern — were able to resume in-person learning.

A total of 520,000 students in Ontario have been able to return to classrooms as of Monday, according to the ministry.

Wednesday’s decision will affect schools in the following public health units:

  • Brant County Health Unit
  • Chatham-Kent Public Health
  • City of Hamilton Public Health Services
  • Durham Region Health Department
  • Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit
  • Halton Region Public Health
  • Huron Perth Public Health
  • Lambton Public Health
  • Niagara Region Public Health
  • Peel Region Public Health
  • Region of Waterloo Public Health and Emergency Services
  • Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit
  • Toronto Public Health
  • Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health
  • Windsor-Essex County Health
  • York Region Public Health

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