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TORONTO -- Ontario schools will remain closed for in-person learning for the rest of the academic year, Premier Doug Ford announced Wednesday, ignoring the advice of the province's top doctor, numerous public health units and scientists.
Ford's decision comes days after he wrote to dozens of public health experts and education stakeholders asking for their recommendations, with many saying that students should return to the classroom on a regional basis for their own well-being.
But Ford said the risk of COVID-19 spreading in classrooms is too great.
"While no one wants kids back in school more than I do, as your premier, these aren't risks I'm willing to take," he said.
Schools across the province moved learning online in mid-April due to an escalating third wave of the pandemic.
Cases have since declined and the province recently unveiled a reopening plan set to take effect in mid-June, but schools weren't part of it.
Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce for months said schools were safe, and not a significant source of COVID-19 cases.
But they changed their tune after closing classrooms in April, pointing the finger at more contagious variants of COVID-19 that first made their way to Canada in late December and early January.
Of particular concern, Ford said, is the variant that was first discovered in India. That variant, known as B.1.617, was initially detected in Ontario on April 23.
The premier said students will be able to return to the classroom in September, when he expects all teachers and education workers will be fully vaccinated.
Ford said he understands kids will be losing out on valued experiences, so he's asked all school boards to allow for outdoor graduation ceremonies for all grade levels, not just students in grades 8 and 12.
"It should be for all students because we know we must do as much as possible to get people outdoors to enjoy the summer, enjoy the nice weather," he said.
The premier also announced plans to speed up other aspects of reopening, saying he's consulting with the province's chief medical officer of health to figure out when restaurant patios and non-essential retailers can safely reopen.
The province had planned on entering that phase on June 14, but Ford said he's trying to move that date up.
That directly contradicts the position of the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams.
"My position has been always, like our public health measures table and our medical officers of health, that feel that schools should be the last to close and the first to open," Williams told a news conference last week.
A group of scientists advising the government, meanwhile, said that kids are suffering while schools are closed.
"This deterioration is now evident in the form of increased ambulatory care use and hospital admissions, most poignantly for children and youth with eating disorders," the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said in a letter to Ford issued Saturday.
"We believe these mental health indicators represent the tip of the iceberg and that children and youth mental health will present significant long-term challenges during our recovery from the pandemic."
Ford said he's working to make sure summer camps can open so kids are able to socialize.
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