Ontario Children Hospital Calls for Quick Return to In-person Learning

January 22, 2021 Updated: January 25, 2021

Ontario needs to reopen schools for in-person learning as soon as possible, as the harm of school closures outweigh the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading among children, according to Canada’s largest child health hospital.

A guidance document for school operations was released on Jan. 21, conducted with the lead of the Toronto-based Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). It recommends children return to in-person learning, adding that “school closure only be considered when significant in-school outbreaks occur.”

“When considering public health measures aimed at curbing community transmission of COVID-19, it is our strong opinion that schools should be the last doors to close and the first to open in society,” Ronald Cohn, president and CEO at SickKids, wrote on Twitter.

“The current school closures need to be as time-limited as possible. It is therefore imperative that bundled measures of infection prevention and control and a robust testing strategy are in place,” he stated.

While elementary and secondary schools in Ontario’s northern public health regions have resumed in-person classes as of Jan. 11, those schools in grey (lockdown) zones—Windsor-Essex, Toronto, Peel, York, and Hamilton—remain closed until Feb. 10.

On Jan. 20, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced in a statement that schools in seven public health units, with over 100,000 students, will also return to in-person learning on Jan. 25.

“Getting students back into class is our top priority. According to Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health and leading medical and scientific experts, including the Hospital for Sick Children, Ontario’s schools are safe places for learning,” he stated.

The hospital, in its guidance document, made sweeping recommendations on how to safely reopen schools—including access to non-invasive testing for all staff and students exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 patient.

For younger age students, it suggests “cohorting classes” as a primary strategy, rather than strict physical distancing, “because of the centrality of play and socialization to their development and learning.” More robust physical distancing and the use of non-medical masks are suggested for high school and middle school students, particularly in the highest risk/epidemiology regions.

The document also highlighted the social and economic inequalities amplified by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, which “further disadvantage children/youth living in areas with higher infection burden where educational inequality and barriers to online learning may be more pronounced.”

An earlier version (pdf) of the guidance document, released in the summer of 2020, focused on reducing transmission risk in schools and keeping community transmission low, through the emphasis on robust testing, contact tracing, and infection control.