More than 500 Ontario doctors are asking the Doug Ford government to keep schools open in January despite the rapid spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.
The doctors signed an open letter to Premier Doug Ford, Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore, saying that government must not use provincial school closures as a means to control the spread of the disease.
“Children and youth have experienced significant harms since March 2020 due to prolonged school closures, and we now must prioritize the needs of children and youth,” the letter states.
“School closures should no longer be a knee-jerk reaction to rising case counts. Numerous jurisdictions have committed to keeping schools open and we need to do the same.”
Premier Doug Ford said on Tuesday that his government will decide whether schools will re-open for in-class instruction in January over the next several days. Across the GTA, most public boards are scheduled to restart on January 3.
The letter signed by doctors lists a number of recommendations on how to keep schools safe, while allowing them to also stay open, including making better and more frequent use of rapid antigen testing.
“Frequent testing (e.g. every second day) of school-based contacts has been shown to be equivalent to self-isolation for control of COVID-19 transmission,” the letter stated. “Two Utah-based “test-to-stay” programs implemented over a four-month period saved over 100,000 in-person instruction days for nearly 60,000 students.”
The doctors painted a grave picture of the impact school closures have had on children and youth, saying their academic, social and emotional, and physical and mental health gave deteriorated resulting in higher rates of eating disorders, psychiatric illness and food insecurity.
The letter states that the issues children have faced due to school closures are in light of the “little to no COVID-19 transmission occurring in the school setting.”
They also note that while the Omicron variant has been found to be more transmissible, it has not been yet found to be more dangerous.
“People infected with Omicron were 15-20 per cent less likely to attend hospital in the UK and 80 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital in South Africa,” the letter stated.
“Canadian hospitalization rates of less than one per cent have been observed, with a mortality rate of zero per cent thus far.”
The doctors stated that the province needs to re-write the popular phrase, “schools should be the last to close and the first to open” and replace it with “schools are an essential service and must remain open.”
Infectious Diseases Specialist Dr. Alon Vaisman said on Wednesday that it seems unlikely that schools will reopen by Jan. 3 due to the rapid spread in the community that may result in “tons and tons” of cases among students.
“It’s possible that this won’t continue very long.” It all depends on how long this wave lasts, and it appears that it will pass fast,” he remarked. “And if we’re not seeing the disease’s level of morbidity and mortality, there’s less and less excuse to keep schools closed.”
“So I believe that will be the strategy in the immediate future, but I believe that there will be broad pressure and a change in thinking on COVID-19, such that schools will likely be opened again or very soon after in January.”