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Reopen schools first and ASAP, says Simcoe-Muskoka medical officer of health

'I think it’s a reasonable thing to do at this time. But I do note it’s not without a cost,' said Dr. Charles Gardner

The local medical officer of health supports the government’s move to close schools for in-person learning, but he’s hoping it’s only a short-term measure. 

“I think it’s a reasonable thing to do at this time,” said Dr. Charles Gardner of the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit. “But I do note it’s not without a cost. There is definitely a hardship on families and on children.” 

The local doctor said schools should be top of the list when it comes to reopening Ontario.

“All of us in public health believe that schools are really important for children’s mental and physical health,” said Gardner. “They should be the last thing to be closed and the first thing to be opened.” 

The doctor said schools have “not been a big part” of transmission of COVID-19 in Simcoe Muskoka. 

“But as case counts go up in the community and exposures happen more and more in schools, it can become very difficult for schools to be able to operate,” said Gardner. “You have such a large number of classes and students and teachers who are home in isolation that it disrupts the potential for schools to operate.”

Another issue, according to Gardner, is the capacity of the health unit to carry out case and contact management, which is something the local health unit has struggled to do since October. 

“We are challenged in being able to get to people with their test results, and we’re advising people to keep themselves in isolation if they haven’t heard from us,” said Gardner. 

The health unit was receiving help from other regions and the province, but that help has dwindled as case counts have increased in other regions and province-wide. 

Currently, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit reports it is reaching about 45 per cent of those who test positive for COVID-19 within 24 hours of receiving a positive test result. The goal is to reach 90 per cent of people who test positive within 24 hours of receiving their results.

Because of the number of cases and contacts, health unit staff have been asking those who test positive to reach out to their own close contacts to inform them of the positive result. 

“Local public health units can be so loaded in their case and contact management that they cannot be assured to be able to follow up with all school exposure situations to safeguard them, and therefore they can’t be sure they’re able to adequately protect the school environment,” said Gardner. “If that’s the case, then it really doesn’t become workable to keep schools open.” 

The local medical officer of health said he hopes schools can reopen again soon, but didn't think it was a guarantee. 

“It may take us a while before we are in a position where the province would feel comfortable with allowing in-school education to take place," said Gardner.

Schools in Ontario are out for spring break this week, and students will resume online learning beginning April 19.