The Northwestern Health Unit wants to see schools reopen next week.

On Thursday, Premier Doug Ford sent an open letter to medical experts, health organizations and children’s hospitals asking for advice on how Ontario could reopen schools before the end of the school year, next month.

Ford’s letter states new modeling expected in the coming days will show that if schools were to reopen, there could be between two and four thousand more cases of COVID-19 by the end of July, compared to if schools remain closed.

Even so, Medical Officer of Health with the NWHU, Dr. Kit Young Hoon, says she recommended to the province that schools in northwestern Ontario could reopen as early as next week.

“For our catchment area, we’ve had very little, if next to no transmission of COVID-19 in our school settings,” said Young Hoon. “That supports that schools can be reopened for the Northwestern Health Unit at this point, considering our case numbers and incidence rates.”

In the region, the Keewatin-Patricia and Kenora Catholic school year calendars both end by June 25. Students have been learning virtually since the April Break, with no date to return to in-person learning.

“When you think about school reopening, you have to think about a number of things,” explains Young Hoon. “You have to think about the risk within the community and the public health measures that are in place in the schools. Our experience shows those measures have reduced transmission of COVID-19 in schools.”

Earlier this week, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Williams, said he’d like to see schools reopen across most of the province next week. Pediatric hospitals and healthcare staff have also been calling for a reopening, due to skyrocketing rates of mental health concerns.

“There is the risk of COVID-19 that has to be considered, but it’s important to think about the risks of keeping schools closed and what that poses for children,” explained Young Hoon. “There are a number of negative health issues. It decreases physical activity, nutrition, and has mental health effects.”

The Kenora Catholic District School Board’s Mental Health team recently detailed a report on the 2020-2021 school year which showed mental health referrals in their students have more than doubled, with the number one reason being supporting students who are dealing with stress and anxiety.

SickKids Ontario has reported more than 70 percent of youth have experienced a worsening of their mental health since the start of the pandemic. As well as mental health concerns, reports of youth developing eating disorders has significantly increased.

But according to Ford’s letter, Ontario is reporting that only 41 per cent of teachers and education staff have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, a low amount compared to the provincial average of 62 per cent of Ontario adults.

However, Dr. Young Hoon notes that all teachers and education staff are currently eligible for their first dose of the vaccine, as are all residents above the age of 12.

“The first dose gives approximately 60 to 80 per cent protection. Some trials indicate that with the first dose, you can have over 90 per cent protection. If you combine that with the public health measures in schools, teachers can go back to school with only one dose of the vaccine with very good protection from COVID-19.”

As well, if schools were to reopen in June, the NWHU is already planning to host high-school-based vaccination clinics for youth between 12 and 17, which wouldn’t require permission from a parent or guardian.

“How consent works following medical guidelines, is a person can give consent if they understand the risks and benefits to the medical treatment. There is no actual age cut-off to give consent. For students 12 to 17, it’s considered reasonable for them to give their own consent,” Young Hoon explains.

“We do have a pre-existing process for school clinics in Grade 7 and 8 for other vaccines. It’s the same process that we do with communication to parents that there are vaccine clinics running for specific grades. We would follow that process if school clinics are able to be run.”

As of May 28, the NWHU is reporting that just over 57 per cent of residents above the age of 12 have received at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine across the region. Dryden has seen the highest uptake so far, at 64.3 per cent.

More information on booking a COVID-19 appointment or attending a walk-in clinic can be found HERE.