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Chris Selley: Doug Ford’s Ontario has utterly lost the plot in closing down schools

Posted: April 16, 2021

(April 14, 2021)

It is testament to Ontarians’ orderly and tolerant ways that the province’s parents have yet to set any government buildings ablaze. On Sunday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce published a letter to his constituents assuring them that in-person classes would resume for their children after this week’s spring break, except in areas where local public health officers have deemed otherwise. He joined British Columbia’s, Alberta’s and Manitobas education ministers in advocating keeping school doors as open as possible, despite widespread calls for them to be closed amidst COVID-19’s third wave. (On Wednesday, the Alberta government agreed to a request by Calgary’s public and Catholic boards to move grades 7-12 online for the time being.)

“Your children are Ontario’s greatest strength and source of inspiration,” Lecce signed off.

And then on Monday Premier Doug Ford closed the schools — all of them, indefinitely — consigning Ontario’s greatest strength and source of inspiration to remote learning options that are widely described as next to worthless.
“We are seeing a rapidly deteriorating situation with a record number of COVID cases and hospital admissions threatening to overwhelm our health-care system,” said Ford, by way of explanation. “By keeping kids home longer after spring break we will limit community transmission, take pressure off our hospitals and allow more time to roll out our COVID-19 vaccine plan.”

Abominable execution aside, in theory this is a defensible decision. Cases and ICU occupancy — though certainly not deaths, praise be to vaccines — are at an all-time high in Ontario. The virus does seem to be spreading at schools, not just appearing from outside: Research from the Ontario Health Coalition and Dr. Diego Bassani, an epidemiologist at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, suggests in some cases it’s spreading faster in schools than in the wider community, which is something we haven’t seen before.

We shouldn’t be surprised by that, though. If any environment in an otherwise locked-down province is going to see higher-than-average spread of a much-more-contagious strain, it makes sense that schools would be one, no matter what preventive measures are in place. Societies around the world have tolerated schools’ unique risk profile for two major reasons: because we all agree — or I thought we did — that they’re incredibly important; and because children are not at any significant risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

Alas, officials evince very little evidence of having taken into account the importance of schools, as opposed to their potential as a disease vector. Quite the contrary, even. In supporting the province’s decision, Toronto Mayor John Tory said “we have to do everything we can to make sure that our children are safe.”

It’s maddening that this still needs saying: New variants or no new variants, by any reasonable measure, the children are safe.

COVID-19 has killed seven Canadians under 20. In 2018, 336 Canadians under 20 died in accidents alone; a few of them were likely on their way to school.

The latest reported COVID-19 fatality in that age group was an unidentified 16-year-old in Montreal last week. “People who die at a young age of COVID-19 are generally people who have significant co-morbidities,” a spokesperson for the Sainte-Justine pediatric hospital said. Children with significant comorbidities — themselves, or among their family members — do not need to go to school in person in Ontario. Indeed, all parents are currently offered online learning for their children, if they want it.

COVID-19 has sent 897 Canadians under 20 to hospital. In 2018, 2,371 children aged five to 17 were hospitalized for pneumonia, 2,361 for asthma, 8,054 for appendicitis, and nearly 20,000 for mental health issues.

The only statistically significant risk is to teachers, and even that should be kept in perspective: Five times as many Canadians aged 20 to 60 died in accidents in 2018 as have died so far from COVID-19. Eleven times as many died from cancer. But it’s maddening that teachers haven’t been moved further and more quickly up the priority list. The last Ontario schools to reopen after Christmas did so when the province was seeing around 40 deaths per day; it’s currently at half that, and vaccination means it is unlikely ever again to approach that level. In the medium term, surely we can all at least agree that once teachers are vaccinated and ICUs are under control, the kids need to get back to school as soon as possible.

In the short term, however, there is absolutely no reason for this rule to apply province-wide, nor is any explanation on offer for why it does.

As of Tuesday the provincial database showed 114 active school outbreaks in Toronto, 51 in York, 45 in Peel, 28 in Durham. In the majority of Ontario’s public health regions, there were between zero and five active outbreaks. Over the past 14 days, the Peel and Toronto health units have reported 38 and 33 cases per 100,000 per day, respectively, on average. Peterborough, population 148,000, has reported seven per 100,000. Kingston, population 213,000, has reported six. North Bay, population 130,000, has reported 1.4. Why on earth are these places, and the children within them, being treated the same as Toronto and Peel?

If problems arise, schools can be shut down overnight — as Ontario parents well know by now. As such, it is very difficult to infer anything from the Ontario government’s actions this week other than untethered, flailing incompetence. It’s not too soon for Ford and Lecce to start talking about how they propose to remedy the damage they’re doing.

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