Ontario elementary and secondary students will not be returning to class in-person anywhere in the province before September 2021, Premier Doug Ford confirmed Wednesday.

After weeks of encouragement from the outgoing chief medical officer of health, a collaborative of epidemiologists and most local medical officers of health to return some or all schools to in-person learning in June, Ford said it just wasn’t worth it.

“No one wants kids back in school more than I do,” Ford said Wednesday afternoon. “As your premier, these aren't risks I'm willing to take. So today, I have to announce that schools will not be returning for in-class learning until the fall.”

He said consultations with dozens of health experts over the past five days couldn’t give him the complete certainty and “consensus” he wanted.

“Here’s what the experts couldn’t say, they couldn’t say whether returning to in class learning without more vaccinations would not add thousands of new COVID-19 cases,” Ford said.

“The experts couldn’t tell us that it wouldn’t spread dangerous variants and keep us from moving to other stages.”

Schools in Toronto, Guelph and Peel Region closed in early April, with the rest of the province joining them after the “April Break” week.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in the meantime, he was working to ensure school boards could offer some form of “in-person graduation summer ceremonies to honor the achievement of students graduating from kindergarten all the way to grade 12,” seeing as kids will not return to schools before the end of the year.

For much of the past school year, Lecce said that schools were actually safer than the communities around them when it came to COVID-19 transmission, often repeating the mantra that children acquired infection in their homes and communities and then brought them to school.

But now, he and Ford say schools pose such a danger that opening them now could derail plans for a wider return to normalcy, even in the context of widespread and expanding vaccination campaign.

Ford said the addition of the B.1.617 variant, poised to become dominant in parts of the GTA by July, magnified his concern.

“We know the Indian variant is here – it’s taken hold – I think it would be irresponsible to put two million kids in the classroom for eight hours a day.  We need to get more students vaccinated, we need the teachers vaccinated.”

Since March 2020 and up until the end, most Ontario schools will have been closed for 28 weeks of regular class, more time than any other school system in the country.

Ford said it was unfair to compare his actions on schools to other jurisdictions, saying Ontario’s size and prominence as a travel destination made it particularly susceptible to variants of concern.

“We're 15 million people, the closest is Quebec at eight and a half a million, but all the rest are one quarter of our size and probably one tenth of our size.”

“They don't have 134,000 people crossing their land borders, they don't have 50,000 planes coming in to the largest airport and Pearson, they don't have Buffalo Airport (serving) as their second international border, but 1000s of people are flying into buffalo, taking a taxi and walking across the border which is unheard of.”

He also said Ontario has more confirmed examples of the B.1.617 than any other province in Canada, which as of today, was not true.

Ontario has 322 confirmed examples of B.1.617, while B.C. has more than 500.

In-person instruction in B.C. schools resumed on Monday.

Reaction to Ford’s decision to keep kids out of schools for the rest of the year was swift and negative.

The Children’s Health Coalition, which represents pediatricians at all of Ontario’s children’s hospitals, disappointed that Ford had not taken their advice.

We are deeply disappointed that Ontario has not acted upon the broad consensus for a regional re-opening of in-person learning. This consensus included children’s healthcare, public health, scientific experts and teachers’ organizations.”

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said the Ford government was not giving public education the attention and protection it deserves.

“The Ford government consistently made students and families an afterthought. They must stop undermining public education and make it a priority. Moving forward, every minute must be spent preparing for a safe and healthy return to in-person learning in the fall, and consultations with stakeholders on updated protocols should begin immediately.”

Dr. Ronald Cohn, the president and chief executive officer of the Hospital for Sick Children, said he is also disappointed that the government did not heed the advice of many medical experts.

“I think time and time again, we have asked our children to make sacrifices throughout this pandemic. Schools play such a unique role in our society. Schools are really the essential work of children, and it is deeply disappointing,” Cohn said in an interview with CP24.

He noted that many regions in Ontario have low COVID-19 case numbers, which makes it safe to open schools in those areas.

Cohn said he is concerned for the short-term and long-term health and well-being of children and youth in the province.

“It is true that current variant B.1.617.2 is has a lot of uncertainty to it. But we also do know that with all the bundle measures that helped mitigate the risk in areas of low community transmission that we see in many areas in Ontario, it would have been safe to send children back to school,” he said.

“I do think that we now need to take a moment look forward and really make our children a priority over the next few weeks and months to not only ensure as safe and as normal as possible return to in-person learning in September but to really address the needs of our children.”

Speaking to reporters after the announcement, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath accused Ford of not putting the mental, physical, and emotional health of children first.

“Ontario is the only province in Canada where kids are still not back in school, where our schools are still closed, and that's on Doug Ford,” she said.

“Classrooms are still mothballed because of Doug Ford's choices. He didn’t want to spend the money on smaller classes, on ventilation, on testing or vaccinating education workers and teachers as a priority. He ignored the experts, as we recall, and marched us right into this third wave and now he's ignoring experts again.”