Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table says it believes schools can reopen on a regional basis without risking the province’s progress of driving down virus spread during the third wave of the pandemic.

The science table, composed of medical experts, medical associations and hospitals across the province, released a statement on Saturday in response to Premier Doug Ford’s letter to health experts and stakeholders asking for their input on whether schools should reopen.

The table said it maintains its longstanding belief that schools should be the last sector to close and the first sector to reopen.

“We believe that Ontario can re-open schools safely on a regional basis to mitigate the significant short and long-term harms arising from school closures, while managing the risk of virus transmission in this sector,” the science table said in its statement.

Schools across Ontario have been closed for in-person learning since mid-April, but with the province planning to enter the first phase of its reopening plan by June 14, there have been increasing calls to reopen schools for the few remaining weeks before summer break.

The science table argues that school closures during the pandemic “create harm” by deteriorating children and youth’s mental health.

“This deterioration is now evident in the form of increased ambulatory care use and hospital admissions, most poignantly for children and youth with eating disorders,” the table said.

“We believe these mental health indicators represent the tip of the iceberg and that children and youth mental health will present significant long-term challenges during our recovery from the pandemic.”

The science table also said school closures create “ripple effects” for both children and families as the social and economic benefits of education are impacted, such as losses of skills development, lifetime earnings, social connections, and for some, missing meals and other critical health services.

“Like so much of the pandemic, these harms and missed benefits are inequitable: those whom the pandemic is hitting hardest are also hardest hit by school closures,” the table said.

The group had previously said that reopening schools could result in a six to 11 per cent increase in virus transmission, which would be small and manageable.

In line with Ontario’s chief medical officer of health and local medical officers of health, the table agrees that schools can reopen on a regional basis, as long as they maintain public health measures and build on strategies already implemented to limit spread.

Ford’s letter raised specific concerns about reopening schools, including the increasing presence of the B.1.617 COVID-19 variant, which was first discovered in India.

He said his government was shown modelling that suggests daily case counts could rise to between 2,000 and 4,000 by late July if schools are fully reopened.

In its response today, the science table acknowledged that the variant “presents a significant unknown” and that the province should continue administering first vaccine doses and accelerate second doses for those most vulnerable to COVID-19 to combat virus spread. The group also said other sectors of the economy should remain closed until they are reopened by the province’s framework.

Looking ahead to September, the science table said the government should be working over the summer to ensure schools are safe and ready for students to return.

“The summer will provide an ideal time to make the whole school system even safer by continuing to improve ventilation in school buildings and by vaccinating students,” the table said.

The group also noted that the province should start developing and investing in recovery plans now to address the long-term mental health, health and educational problems that arose during the COVID-19-related school closures.

One epidemiologist responded to the science table’s advice on Twitter Saturday morning and said he disagrees with their guidance.

“We have an end to the pandemic in our reach in Ontario. We may get away with this gamble, or may not. In my view gambling on increasing ICU admissions and accelerated b1617 strain replacement: not worth it,” Dr. David Fisman, an epidemiologist at UofT’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health wrote on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the medical officers of health for Toronto, Peel Region and York Region have voiced their support for the resumption of in-person learning.

In a letter to the premier on Friday, Toronto's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said she would prefer the return of in-person learning before other COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

The province's four largest education sector unions also released a statement on Friday and said educators have consistently "supported the safe, regional reopening of schools" but believe the decision on reopening should be left up to local medical officers of health.

Ford has not said when he will release his decision on reopening schools.