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Toronto’s medical officer of health defends sudden decision to close schools due to COVID-19

A day after the last-minute announcement that all schools would be required to temporarily close, Toronto’s medical officer of health says the decision process was deliberate and in response to the spread of COVID-19 variant cases.

“I’m not a big fan of short notice either and I will tell you the decision was taken very deliberately and with a great deal of consideration,” Dr. Eileen de Villa told reporters Wednesday afternoon during a news conference.

“I think that at the end of the day taking these kinds of decisions is never simple. We know that there are many, many implications associated with that. That being said, my responsibility fundamentally is to health and safety and to ensure the actions taken really protect the health and safety of our children and all those that work in the school environments.

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It was Tuesday afternoon when de Villa issued a Section 22 order under the Health Protection and Promotion Act to order schools closed as of Wednesday. Schools in Toronto were ordered to move to online learning until at least April 18.

Section 22 orders allow medical officers of health to put in place requirements aimed at slowing the spread of communicable diseases.

However, de Villa’s decision came a day after Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel Region’s medical officer of health, ordered schools to close until April 18.

On Tuesday, while Toronto students returned to school after the Easter long weekend, de Villa and Toronto Public Health (TPH) opted not to enact similar measures, saying staff were still monitoring school data.

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During her remarks on Wednesday, de Villa said TPH determined there were “no alternative that would provide for continued in-class learning.”

“I have said, and Toronto Public Health believes, that schools should operate as safely as possible in the pandemic, but never at all costs,” she said.

“Our conclusion yesterday was that the circumstances no longer allowed for classroom learning, and so we took the decision after extensive consultation with the school boards and others.”

De Villa said schools have generally been safe and there are measures aimed at keeping students and teachers safe. However, she said the spread of COVID-19 was being detected in schools and the risk of people staying in schools was getting higher.

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When asked about the possible return of students, de Villa said she wants students to return to in-person learning “as soon as possible” and for people to stay home and adhere to public health measures to help lower COVID-19 cases.

“The extent of the spread in the community imposes a greater burden of living with COVID-19 on children and young people – a burden that people their age should not be asked to bear,” she said.

“We must act to create circumstances that will allow them back into school as soon as possible.”

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