Gov't committed to in-class learning: Lecce
Ontario will do everything possible to keep kids in class throughout the school year, Education Minister Stephen Lecce says.
As students at the last major school boards head back to class Thursday, the minister said the province’s top public health doctor believes the improvements in ventilation and other public health measures will ensure schools stay open year-round for the benefit of children’s mental and physical health.
“That is our commitment as a government to work very hard to ensure our schools remain safe and that kids can continue to learn in class,” Lecce said in an interview Wednesday.
Over 76% of youth aged 12 to 17 have been vaccinated, a higher rate than young adults aged 18 to 29, Lecce said.
Teacher federations have assured him that their members also have a high rate of vaccination, and the government has committed to releasing immunization rates, he said.
Ontario stopped short of mandating vaccination for teachers and education staff, even for those working in elementary schools where students born after 2009 are ineligible for a vaccine.
“We’ve adopted the same expectation of education staff as we do within our hospitals and our long-term care,” Lecce said. “We’re requiring education staff to pick one of two lanes — either by preference of government get fully immunized to protect themselves or, for the minority that have not, that they are going to be subjected weekly mandatory testing, twice a week, as a prerequisite to enter our schools.”
This level of testing, coupled with high levels of staff vaccination, is a significant change from last year when schools were forced to go to online learning only, he said.
According to the Ministry of Education, there have been 11,462 student cases and 2,661 staff cases of school-related COVID-19 transmission.
In another 1,169 cases, the individuals were not identified.
More than 4,800 instances of school closures due to at least one case of COVID-19 were recorded since the beginning of the pandemic.
Polling has shown parents are strongly supportive of a return to in-class learning and early indications are that only a minority are opting to continue with online learning this fall.
“I am obviously a big advocate of in-class learning,” Lecce said. “And so it’s great to see many young children returning to school with their peers in front of their educators in safe and positive spaces.”
Just more than two million elementary and secondary students attend publicly-funded schools in Ontario.
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said that the government needs to do more to ensure a safe September, including improving ventilation to minimum standards, implementing a comprehensive, province-wide rapid testing regime and ensuring smaller class sizes.
Asked if every classroom will have benefited from improved ventilation, the minister said the top priority has been to improve air quality in all schools with MERV13 filters, changed more often and run before and after school hours, he said.
As for class sizes, a strong concern for many parents in the early days of the pandemic, Lecce said the government has provided more funding for additional staff.