Second wave plan
As the province reported the highest number of new COVID-19 cases since early June, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government has been developing a "very robust fall preparedness plan." She wouldn't disclose when exactly it will be released other than to say "we will be bringing (it) forward to you in very short order."
She acknowledged that the second wave of COVID-19, which several politicians seemed to accept as an inevitability on Monday, will be more complicated and difficult than the first due to it likely coinciding with the flu season, reduced hospital capacity and a backlog of surgeries and other procedures.
Asked if the government would be pausing scheduled surgeries and procedures, as it had done back in March, in the event of a second wave, Elliott said, "No, we don't want to do that."
"We know that many people are very concerned about having had cancer surgeries, cardiac surgeries, orthopedic surgeries put off, we don’t want them to have to go through that again, so that’s why our plan does take all of these contingencies into consideration," she said. The health minister added that a regional approach is being taken for surgeries so that even if one hospital is at full capacity, medical procedures can continue at another hospital.
"It's coming," said Premier Doug Ford of a possible second wave, adding that he hopes he's wrong.
"I know it’s kind of like the perfect storm, everything coming together, schools starting, second wave, flu season, economy, but folks, I can tell you one thing, we’re going to hit some bumps, but we’re ready for it," he said.
Asked about growing lines at COVID-19 testing centres, Ford said he's noticed this as well and that the province is working to boost capacity.
The premier said he discussed the issue with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland on Monday morning and that all provinces will be ramping up testing. Ford also said the province will need to work with the private sector. And while the idea of allowing pharmacies to conduct COVID-19 testing has been raised, the premier noted that there are some concerns with taking that step to reduce lines at testing centres.
"A lot of seniors are going into pharmacies; do we want asymptomatic people going into pharmacies?" he asked. "So there’s so many items, as soon as you do one thing, there’s a reaction on the other end. We’re looking at every scenario, but we are ramping up for more testing."
More than 30,000 tests have been completed each day for the past three, with the number of tests mostly staying in the 20,000 to 30,000 range for the past few weeks.
School-related COVID-19 cases
The reopening of schools was a focus for MPPs as they returned to the legislature for the fall sitting on Monday, with calls for lower class sizes and caps on the number of students allowed on school buses. The province reported 15 school-related COVID-19 cases on Monday, up from 13 on Friday. This included one new student case at John Fraser Secondary School in Mississauga and one new staff case at Fellowes High School in Pembroke.
The province also reported two more cases related to child-care centres, bringing the total to 58 cases. This comes as Ontario reported 313 new COVID-19 cases on Monday — the highest number in the province since early June.
Peel sees more demand for online learning
The Peel District School Board informed families on the weekend that the start of classes for those choosing online learning this fall would be delayed. The board had originally planned for online classes to start on Monday, but live classes will be pushed back to Sept. 21 for elementary students and Sept. 22 for high school students.
"Over the last few days, we have seen a significant increase in families switching from in-person learning to the PDSB Online School," the board stated in its note. "We now have over 64,000 students enrolled online, which is an increase of over 10,000 students in the last week."
The board said it now needed more time to staff online classes and to redo timetables. Students in kindergarten to Grade 8 will be provided with numeracy and literacy-related activities for independent learning this week, and teachers will contact families on Sept. 17-18.
High school students will be asked to complete a "cross-curricular independent inquiry project" from Sept. 15-21. Teachers will use these projects to assess where students are in terms of their learning in subjects like English, math, science and social sciences. Students are expected to get their timetables by Sept. 18.
Asked about teachers being assigned classes of more than 30 students, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said boards have access to $200 million to hire more educators, but that they are facing "operational challenges" as families switch between in-person and online learning.
"While those decisions are made and while we’re seeing the migration of tens of thousands back and forth, it creates operational challenges for boards," he said. "It's not an excuse, but … in the absence of knowing the full quantum of kids in the class, school boards are essentially consolidating classes to make up for those unknown numbers."
Once boards know how many students are returning for in-person learning, they will "reconstitute those classrooms, spread them out, hire more educators and ultimately reduce those classroom sizes," said Lecce.
University students test positive
Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano said he thinks "peer-to-peer type of monitoring" should be used at post-secondary institutions this fall to encourage greater adherence to health and safety protocols.
Speaking to reporters after question period on Monday, Romano said this was one element used during a pilot program of in-person learning in the summer.
"I think a lot of that peer-to-peer type of monitoring is going to be required moving forward," said Romano. "I think if I ran into you in the grocery store and you weren’t wearing your mask and I said, 'Hey, come on, put your mask on,' that’s the kind of thing that we can all do to support each other to make sure that we all stay safe."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath didn't approve of this suggestion.
"I don’t think that having kids police each other, 19-year-olds ratting out their friends, is an effective strategy to reduce the spread of COVID-19," she said, calling on the government to invest more in clearly communicating with students and the public.
And while the government has launched a new website showing COVID-19 cases connected to schools and child-care centres, Romano wouldn't commit to doing the same for colleges and universities.
"I’m happy to look further into that. I don’t want to commit to something that potentially may be contrary to what specific board provisions are at those particular schools," he said citing the "autonomy of the institutions" and adding that such information has been released by individual public health units.
The Middlesex-London Health Unit announced on Sept. 13 that five Western University students had tested positive for the virus.
"This appears to be something that was within the community and obviously we recognize that we’re not going to come out of this unscathed, there are going to be cases," Romano said.
The health unit said while the students lived off-campus and had not been to any classes or events on campus, "they have had a number of interactions at downtown bars and restaurants, and with students in neighbouring housing units."
"If we ever needed evidence to show there‘s still a risk from COVID-19 in the community, this is it," said Dr. Chris Mackie, the region's medical officer of health, in a statement. "We know the temptation to get back together with friends and party is great, but it is crucial that we all do our part to prevent the spread of COVID-19. That means limiting social gatherings, sticking to our social circles, keeping two metres apart and staying home if you feel sick."
Asked about parties and gatherings now that universities and colleges are reopening, Romano said is a "reoccurring" problem in that people generally started having "significant gatherings" as the weather turned warmer.
"Short of saying you’re not allowed, we are really after people and continue to stress the importance of the distancing, the importance being masked, the importance of following protocols," he said. "I know when you’re starting school it’s frosh week time, people are excited, it’s fun to see friends again, everybody wants to hang out and have a good time, do it in reason, be responsible, be mindful of the people around you, be mindful that the decisions you make impact other people’s health and safety as well."