TORONTO — Students in the two provinces hardest hit by COVID-19 should be able to experience a "normal" return to school in the fall, officials said Wednesday as other provinces and territories looked to loosen pandemic-related travel restrictions.
Ontario and Quebec laid out their plans for schools Wednesday as they stressed the importance of vaccinations to keep students and educators safe.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that students who've been learning remotely since mid-April will continue doing so for the rest of the academic year, with plans to return to classrooms in the fall. Reopening schools now could lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases, he said.
"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 in an afternoon news conference.
Many public health experts had urged the province to reopen schools on a regional basis now to support students' well-being.
The province presented its economic reopening plan last month, but it didn't include schools. Ford suggested Wednesday some other restrictions could be loosened ahead of schedule in light of recent improvements in Ontario's case counts.
In Quebec, Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said children and teens should be able to attend school without masks or classroom bubbles in the fall, as well as go on field trips and eat lunch in a common area.
But he said that's only if infections remain low and at least 75 per cent of kids aged 12 and up are vaccinated. About 45 per cent of youth 12 to 17 have received a shot or made an appointment to get vaccinated so far, he said.
Officials will adjust the plan if COVID-19 cases increase, he said.
The school plans come as Canada continues to see a decline in case counts, with national data showing an average of 2,529 new cases each day over the last seven-day period, a 35-per-cent drop over the previous week.
The number of Canadians in hospital due to COVID-19 also decreased by 16.5 per cent compared with the previous week, while daily deaths related to the virus went down 20 per cent, data show.
Canada's top doctor said the decline in infection rates is "considerable" but urged caution in loosening public health measures.
"Until vaccine coverage is sufficiently high to impact disease transmission more broadly in the community, we must sustain a high degree of caution to drive infection rates down to low, manageable levels, and not ease restrictions too soon or too quickly where infection rates are high," Dr. Theresa Tam said in a statement.
Some provinces and territories prepared Wednesday to ease restrictions at their borders, provided the situation continues to improve.
Newfoundland and Labrador said it could welcome travellers from the rest of Canada as early as July 1, presuming infections remain low and the province stays on track with its vaccination goals.
Travellers who are fully vaccinated would not have to self-isolate or present a negative COVID-19 test, while those who are partially vaccinated would have to show a negative result from a test taken within three days of their departure date, officials said.
Isolation requirements are also easing in the Northwest Territories, at least for visitors from Yukon.
Yukon travellers will need to submit a request to be exempt from isolation, and must not have any COVID-19 symptoms or have been in contact with someone who has the virus. But the exemption applies regardless of vaccination status.
In Yukon, where some restrictions were relaxed last week, Premier Sandy Silver said more changes were planned for mid-June, including allowing visitors who received their second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at least two weeks earlier to skip self-isolation.
They will have to provide proof of immunization and sign a declaration, Silver said. Unvaccinated children under 12 who are travelling with fully vaccinated caregivers will also be allowed to forgo isolation.
The province's chief medical officer said Yukon's high vaccine uptake means its population is now far less vulnerable.
Meanwhile, Manitoba health officials said they would be ramping up vaccination efforts as the number of people getting their first shot starts to plateau.
Vans will be used as mobile clinics in some areas, and community clinics will be set up in areas where vaccine hesitancy is high, they said. In some rural areas south of Winnipeg, vaccination rates are less than half the provincial average.
The province is also sending COVID-19 patients to Alberta as well as Ontario and Saskatchewan as it deals with mounting hospitalizations.
Alberta said it can offer critical care in Edmonton or Calgary for up to 10 patients from the neighbouring province.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2021.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press