OTTAWA -- Ottawa's medical officer of health suggests students could return to class for in-person learning before the end of the school year, as COVID-19 levels slowly decline in the capital.

"It's looking positive to be able to open schools towards the end of May, if the rate of COVID continues to come down in the community," said Dr. Vera Etches.

All publicly funded elementary and secondary schools across Ontario have been closed since the end of the April break. Premier Doug Ford announced on April 12 that schools would be closed indefinitely amid soaring COVID-19 case counts.

"Our objective with schools is to reopen the schools as soon as possible," said Dr. Etches in French during a media availability after Wednesday's council meeting.

Etches says Ottawa Public Health has held discussions with the province about the COVID-19 situation in the community, and possibly reopening schools for in-person learning this spring.

"We know that the risk of having COVID being brought into the schools is higher when the rates are higher in the community. Today, they're still high. There's still 75 people testing positive per 100,000 per week. When we opened schools in February, we had rates that were near half that," said Etches. "But we're on a trajectory where we can be hopeful about that school opening process, so we're sharing that hope with the province."

Ottawa Public Health reported 115 new cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa on Wednesday, while the weekly incidence rate is now 73.2 cases per 100,000 people.

The last day of school for the Ottawa Catholic School Board is June 24, while the last day of school for the Ottawa Carleton District School Board is June 25.

"The desire is there to provide this essential service to children and families as soon as we can," said Dr. Etches. 

Ontario's current stay-at-home order is set to expire on May 20.

Dr. Etches says she's "encouraged" by the slow decline in COVID-19 transmission in the community.

"The stay-at-home order is what's working to really bring the levels down. What I am encouraged by is that the conversation about being able to open schools is happening, and that is something where I think the regional approach is a valid way to go," said Etches, adding she favours a regional approach to reopening schools.

"I think that's the first step, we need to get schools open and then we need to take a look at other measures that could be relaxed."

Mayor Jim Watson added schools opening should be the top priority as Ontario looks at reopening services.

"I think the first priority for all of us here is to get our school system back up and running, at least so the kids could have at least a month of in-class learning. I think that's a great priority both for their mental well-being and that of their parents and caregivers."

Elementary schools in Gatineau and the Outaouais reopened for in-person learning on Monday, while secondary schools will reopen on May 17.