Shawn Jeffords and Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press
TORONTO — Students in Ontario regions hit hard by COVID-19 will begin returning to physical classrooms next week as the province said new infections were gradually declining and additional measures had been put in place to ensure schools would be safe.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Wednesday that students in 13 public health units, including Hamilton and Windsor, Ont., will resume in-person learning on Monday.
Students in Toronto, Peel Region and York Region will return to shuttered schools a week later, on Feb. 16.
Ontario had previously said all students learning online could return to physical classrooms by Feb. 10, but the detection of virus variants and concern cases could spike had cast doubt on that date.
Lecce said the province made its reopening decisions based on advice from local medical officers of health and Ontario's top doctor.
"We have seen a consistent decline in key transmission rates and with the full support of the chief medical officer of health ... Ontario is ready to reopen our schools because it's safe," he said.
Lecce said the province will continue to monitor COVID-19 trends and take further action if health experts recommend it.
"If they give us an indication that there is a risk to schools, to communities, to your child, and to our staff, ... I will not hesitate to act," he said.
The province also said individual public health units have the authority to close schools to in-person learning based on local circumstances.
All students in Ontario began January with online learning as part of a provincial lockdown.
The province then took a staggered approach to reopening schools, allowing those in northern Ontario and rural areas to resume in-person learning first.
Lecce said the province has added a number of safety measures, including asymptomatic testing and enhanced screening for secondary students and staff.
The government has also allocated $341 million in federal funding to school boards that will go towards measures that include hiring more cleaning staff, buying personal protective equipment, and enhancing air filtration.
Ontario's largest teachers' union said Wednesday that adequate safety measures must be in place to prevent future school closures.
The president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario said the government must take "urgent action" to fund additional measures and provide time for school boards to implement them.
"The Ford government has not invested any new provincial money since August," Sam Hammond said. "They must stop taking credit for federal funding and invest now to avoid contributing to a third wave.”
NDP education critic Marit Stiles said while the Opposition want to sees schools reopen, the government has not demonstrated how it will make them safe.
The province needs to cap class sizes at 15 students, create a comprehensive in-school testing regime, and improve ventilation, she said.
"Don’t just open schools — make them safe to open," Stiles said.
Romana Siddiqui, a mother of three living in Mississauga, Ont., said it’s some comfort for her that Peel Region is resuming classes a week later than others, allowing more time for cases to decline further.
She said, however, that she’d still like to see more safety measures, such as smaller class sizes.
“We know for our kids, being in a brick-and-mortar school in person, that’s the best in terms of the quality of their education,” Siddiqui said, adding that it’s a difficult call to weigh the benefits of in-person learning with the risks of virus transmission in schools.
“There’s always a push-and-pull. There’s no easy answers.”
Shameela Shakeel, who has three school-aged children, said she wants assurance that the government’s “enhanced safety measures” will be in place by the time classes resume in York Region in two weeks.
“They have to really start to seriously mean it when they say that safety comes first for our kids and educators,” the Newmarket, Ont., parent said.
The decision on schools came as Ontario reported 1,172 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, although officials noted that updates to the provincial case-management system were causing data fluctuations.