During a virtual North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit press conference, the panel of health experts fielded questions on a variety of COVID-19 response topics and foremost among those was when local children would be permitted to return to in-class learning?
Ontario students did not return to class following an already delayed spring break, as Ontario schools have moved to online-only for an indefinite period.
Dr. Carol Zimbalatti, Public Health Physician at the Health Unit stressed the decision ultimately rests with the province but that does not mean local health officials will not push for a return to school for students in the district when it's safe to do so.
"At this point, it is too early to say when we will be able to return to in-school learning. It does depend largely on the provincial trends — which we continue to monitor," said Zimbalatti, noting positive cases in April have already exceeded the March totals locally and are up across Ontario. "It will depend somewhat, as well, on local trends."
Asked if the Health Unit would push for schools to reopen, Zimbalatti responded, "I don't think that's the right direction to be going. The case counts provincially are still very high and we need to have control provincially before we would advocate for a return to school in our area."
So, why are local students in a district with low numbers and few cases related to educational settings left learning from home in a district already identified by the province as having challenges with technology infrastructure?
"We need to be able to keep our case numbers low in the district so that our health care system has the capacity to work with the rest of the provincial health care system, to be able to control numbers and make sure all Ontarians have access to health care," advised Zimbalatti. "Closing our schools and keeping everyone safe in the community here is part of that strategy."
Dr. Jim Chirico, the local Medical Officer of Health added to the discussion on schools with, "The quickest and the best way to get our kids back into school is by keeping our community spread low. And, if we can do that within our community and everybody works toward that same goal, we will see a return to the classroom much quicker."
Premier Doug Ford has said the community spread of COVID-19 was a major point of concern.
"The problem is not in our schools it's in our community spread," said Ford. "Bringing our kids back to a congregate setting in our schools after a week off in the community is a risk I won't take."
Child care for non-school-aged children remains open, before and after school programs are closed and free emergency child care for the school-aged children of eligible health care and frontline workers is being provided.
School boards are making provisions for continued in-person support for students with special education needs who require additional support that cannot be accommodated through remote learning.