Back to school this fall for Ontario’s two million students isn’t quite back to normal, but there will be fewer COVID-19 restrictions than the 2020-21 year.
And — after Ontario shut down its schools more than any other province since the pandemic began — Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore says he does not expect that to happen in 2021-22.
“I really don’t see our schools closing going into the fall and winter and spring … we will do our utmost to keep schools open for all students and families,” Moore said Tuesday after the province unveiled its long-awaited fall plan for in-person learning that includes mandatory masks for staff and students starting in Grade 1, but allows for music programs and a full return of competitive sports and extracurricular clubs.
With “a multi-faceted approach of masking, hand hygiene, distancing, screening on a daily basis, testing in case-contact management and improvements in ventilation, all of those measures that we’re recommending, I think will keep our schools safe,” added Moore. “I really can’t envision, or see any closure of any schools in Ontario — or colleges or universities — we must maintain them open going forward.”
The provincial guidance says masks are required for students starting in Grade 1, and Moore said kindergarten students — who can be as young as three — are exempt because of issues with compliance and “and we know that their risk of getting any severe complications of COVID to be very, very minimal.”
Instrumental music and choir is a go, as are interschool sports, field and overnight trips, schoolwide assemblies and co-op education. Libraries, cafeterias and computer labs will reopen.
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said boards do have enough time to make any changes before classes resume, adding that “until we get to September to see how it actually plays out, it’s hard to know exactly what’s going to happen. But we know how important it is to get them back in school, having them be able to do extracurriculars — even if it means doing band, outdoors, in a courtyard — it’s so important for kids to access those parts of school.”
Elementary students will be cohorted in their classes, and high school students are not to take more than two courses at a time — meaning the dreaded quadmester option is here to stay.
Physical distancing is encouraged, but no distance is recommended, with a few exceptions, including for high-contact sports, school buses and at lunch where two metres must be maintained between cohorts in cafeterias.
Children do not require masks at recess or any outdoor breaks.
Hand hygiene measures will continue, as will deep cleaning of schools.
The province has previously announced funding for ventilation, and the province says schools will need high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in all classrooms without mechanical ventilation.
Vaccines are encouraged, but not mandated, and online learning will continue to be offered.
Parent and early childhood educator Bronwen Alsop said she was pleased to hear that kids in kindergarten or younger won’t be required to wear masks, and that things like music and field trips will return.
“I want more normal,” Alsop said at the legislature. “It’s good for children to have these extra activities.”
But Alsop said she’s concerned that individual school boards could deviate from the provincial guidelines and wants assurances that there will be “no unnecessary closures” of schools, which she says should remain open unless there is a “catastrophic” situation with COVID-19 such as fast-rising hospital intensive care admission rates.
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“If they are not skyrocketing we need to live with this as much as possible,” she said, adding that otherwise, kids will miss more school and busy parents will be hard-pressed once again to supervise remote learning at home in a return to a “vicious circle.”
Moore said he feels “elated” children are returning to school, and that the province will “regularly review the need” for measures such as mandatory masking. “We will recommend modifying requirements as soon as it is safe to do … but the reassessment of public health measures should be done on a regular basis to see that they’re essential and mandatory.”
At the same time, boards have also been warned to ensure they can quickly switch to online learning should COVID cases increase in the community and schools need to be closed.
Ontario students spent the most time out of the classroom during the pandemic, with a Canada-wide high of 26 weeks since March 2020.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce had previously said the province’s goal was a full return to school for students, with sports and after-school clubs.
He will be making an announcement on Wednesday to boost funding for improved ventilation in schools, on top of the current $500 million being spent.
A recent report by pediatric experts said masking, cohorting and distancing could be dropped in areas with low COVID rates, but Moore previously said the September start-up would be cautious.
The new provincial guidance says high-contact sports are allowed outdoors only, but masks are not mandatory. Lower-contact activities are allowed indoors, and again no masks are required if cohorts can stay apart two metres.
The Grade 10 literacy test, a requirement for graduation, is also waived for all students finishing high school in the 2021-22 school year, and required volunteer hours are now 20, not 40.
Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, called the return-to-school plan “incomplete and inadequate,” noting that most elementary students are not eligible for vaccines, given their age. (Vaccines are available for those 12 and up.)
Liberal MPP Kathleen Wynne, former premier and education minister, said the province needs to invest in smaller classes and boost mental health supports in school rather than community-based resources. That “demonstrates a real lack of understanding of what is needed by children,” she said.
Meanwhile, rules around COVID testing will be loosened, with a smaller symptom list — fever, cough, shortness of breath among them — so that students don’t require a test for a stuffy nose, and different types of tests will be offered, Moore said.
“We’ve heard loud and clear from parents,” he added.
It’s time, he also said, to “normalize COVID-19 for schools and have an approach that’s prudent, that’s cautious, but that realizes we’re going to have a rise in cases” this fall as the weather cools and people move indoors, “but we’re going to adhere to the best practices to minimize the spread and to keep our community safe.”
With files from Rob Ferguson
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