TORONTO (AP) — Canada’s most populous province of Ontario announced Wednesday it will reopen all schools for in-class learning this month despite the presence of new coronavirus variants and a high number of infections in Toronto and its suburbs.
The majority of schools will reopen Monday while those in Toronto and its suburbs will resume in-person learning on Feb 16. There are no plans to vaccinate teachers.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said returning kids to school safely is crucial for their development.
“Kids need to be in school for their mental health,” Lecce said. He said he is consulting with local public health officials about the reopening.
The provincial government isn’t doing widespread asymptomatic testing, but targeted asymptomatic voluntary testing in certain areas when requested. The federal government provided the provinces with millions of tests but they have not been used.
All students in Ontario began January with online learning as part of a provincial lockdown.
The number of cases in Ontario are not lower now than when they closed schools. Ontario is reporting 1,172 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, but officials noted that updates to the provincial case-management system are causing data fluctuations and the actual number is higher.
Despite the underreported numbers, Dr. David Williams, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, used them as justification for reopening in his comments alongside Lecce.
“If they are using heavily underreported numbers as a justification I obviously have serious concerns. Amongst other things it is disingenuous. I understand politics, but it’s irresponsible to use knowingly false numbers as a justification to open up,” said Dr. Andrew Morris, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Toronto and the medical director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at Sinai-University Health Network.
“We are not where he said we are. In my mind we are unquestionably remaining at a dangerously high number of cases,” he said.
Morris said it’s not poor communication. “This is misinformation,” he said. “He really should correct the record. He either misunderstands the numbers or he is knowingly spreading misinformation, one or the other.”
Morris also said the Ontario government is using local public health officials as cover for not having any metrics for opening.
Health officials said both the UK and South African variants are present in Ontario. More than half the residents, 66 out of 129, in a long term home in Barrie, Ontario have died after the UK variant spread throughout that home.