By Jeff Morris
Schools in Barrhaven and throughout the province will remain closed until September. Premier Doug Ford made the announcement in a Wednesday afternoon press conference.
There was, however, some positive news for students and families in Ford’s announcement. The Premier indicated that he wants to see outdoor graduations at the end of the school year.
“I don’t mean just for Grade 8 and Grade 12,” the Premier said. “I want to see an outdoor graduation for every grade, for every class.”
He explained at the end of the press conference that the idea for an outdoor graduation for every grade came after a visit with an elementary school student named Arthur, and his family. Arthur wrote the Premier a letter and delivered it to his house. He expressed his disappointment in learning remotely rather than at school. The Premier went to his house and knocked on the door, and he sat with Arthur and his family in the back yard to discuss the situation.
Ford said that the idea for the outdoor graduation for every day came out of his discussion with Arthur. “He’s a tough negotiator,” the Premier said. “He will be Premier one day.”
Ottawa Carleton District School Board Barrhaven-Knoxdale-Merivale Trustee Donna Blackburn was happy with the announcement about the outdoor graduations.
“It’s great news,” she said about a half hour after the announcement was made. “I was totally happy. I will certainly do everything I can to make sure it happens. We’re lucky that we have really dedicated administrators and school staff. I’m confident that everyone will work together to give everyone a safe, in-person outdoor graduation.”
Premier Ford said the top priority of the province is putting the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic behind everyone. He said that he did not want to risk further spread by opening up schools.
“Making this tough decision now will allow kids to safely enjoy camps and outdoor activities this summer, and a safe return to school in September,” he said.
According to the province, recent modelling presented by the Science Advisory Table revealed that if Ontario reopened schools to in-person learning the province could see an increase of six to 11 per cent in the number of new daily COVID-19 cases. It is unknown how many of these would be the new, more dangerous B.1.617.2 variant first identified in India, which has entered the province through Canada’s borders.
“While this decision was not made lightly, it has been done with one aim: protect the summer for families and deliver a stable and safe September for students,” said Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education. “We are looking forward and taking action by getting all education workers and students vaccinated with both doses ahead of September, while investing an additional $2 billion to ensure students and staff are safe.”
Lecce said Ontario’s plan supports the largest investment in mental health and the largest summer learning program in Ontario history, with supports available to students through the summer and when they return to in-person learning in September. He emphasized that the government is working to ensure that students can look forward to a return to normal and enjoy outdoor and extracurricular activities as soon as it is safe to do so.
School boards will continue to have safety plans in place for students who are experiencing or could be expected to experience mental health challenges. This will help them to have continued access to remote or in-person services through the school, community child and youth mental health service providers or local health care partners. Schools will continue to remain open for in-person learning for special education students who cannot be accommodated through remote learning until the end of June. Students, parents and families also have a number of mental health resources that are available to them through their school board as well as through other providers, including Kids Help Phone, which offers 24/7 counselling and referral services across the province, as well as resources through School Mental Health Ontario and services through child and youth mental health agencies across the province.
Premier Ford said that he is encouraging as many people as possible in the school system – students, staff and teachers – to get vaccinated. More than 9.36 million doses have been administered in Ontario and a plan to accelerate second doses has just been released. Youth aged 12 and over are currently eligible to schedule a COVID-19 vaccine appointment through the provincial booking system and call centre, as well as at select pharmacies administering the Pfizer vaccine.
The province expects to reach all youth aged 12 and over who want a vaccine with a first dose before the end of June and with a second dose by the end of August 2021. Following prioritization of education workers with a first dose this spring, the province also expects to reach all education workers with a second dose by the week of August 15, if not already eligible earlier by age cohort or other eligibility. This is subject to vaccine supply.