Hundreds of doctors in Ontario have signed a letter sent to Doug Ford’s government urging it not to close schools in January, citing the consequences for children’s academic, social, physical and mental health.
“We are a group of doctors who are deeply concerned about the use of provincial school closures to control the spread of COVID-19,” the doctors wrote in a letter to Ford, Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Ontario Health Director Dr. Kieran Moore.
“Children and young people have experienced significant harm since March 2020 due to prolonged school closures, and we must now prioritize the needs of children and young people.”
Most students are expected to return to school next week after the Christmas break. Ford said Tuesday that an announcement about schools in the province will come “in the next few days.”
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The letter, signed by more than 600 doctors, outlined several recommendations the government could make to make schools a safe place to learn, as COVID-19 cases continue to rise at unprecedented speeds due to the highly contagious Omicron variant .
Doctors recommend protecting school attendance by using a “test-to-stay” strategy.
The strategy, also recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will see students, their siblings and teachers remain in the classroom after close contact exposure using frequent rapid tests.
Doctors said frequent testing, such as every other day, of school-based contacts has been shown to be similar to self-isolation to control COVID-19 transmission.
They also said that two Utah-based “test-to-stay” programs implemented over a four-month period had saved more than 100,000 personal instruction days for nearly 60,000 students.
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The letter also outlined several reasons why children should continue to learn in person despite the current COVID-19 situation in Ontario.
They mentioned at length the extensive damage to students’ mental health, including an increase in psychiatric illnesses, eating disorders, anxiety, depression and more visits to hospitals for other mental illnesses.
They also pointed out that there has been little or no infection of COVID-19 in the school environment. They said that when school-based transmissions took place, the number of secondary cases was small.
The baseline risk of COVID-19 in children is lower compared to adults, doctors wrote as their third cause. Their fourth reason was that although the Omicron variant has been shown to be more transmissible, it has not yet been found to be more virulent.
“We need to rewrite the popular phrase ‘schools must be the last to close and the first to open’ and replace it with ‘schools are an important service and must remain open,'” the doctors said in closing the letter.
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Global News spoke with one of the doctors who signed the letter, Dr. Ottawa-based Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, who said school closures over COVID-19 have had a huge impact on children.
“When you look at the overall risk to our children and what stage we are in the pandemic, we know so much more when we are almost two years in and extremely vaccinated. [and] to have the vaccines available to our five-year-olds and over, ”said Kyeremanteng.
“We should be at a point where we find out about this and we’re really trying to keep our kids in school so we reduce the trauma that we’ve implemented on our kids on previous waves,” he continued.
“I know the Omicron situation is always evolving and we want as much information as possible, but we need a plan. Full stop. For me, it would make sense at the moment to have our children involved in school , have a test-to-stay approach to ensure the safety of our children and to ensure that they are in class for as long as possible. “
– With files from Global News’ Abigail Bimman
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