Elementary and secondary school students in London and Middlesex will be returning to the classrooms starting next week with added coronavirus pandemic protections, as will students in Elgin and Oxford counties.
They’ll be among roughly 280,000 students in four public health jurisdictions who will be going back to in-person learning next week. In addition to the Middlesex-London Health Unit and Southwestern Public Health, students within the Eastern Ontario and Ottawa public health units will be doing the same while students elsewhere will continue with remote learning.
Locally, elementary school students will be returning on Monday while secondary school students will be returning on Thursday, officials with the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) and London District Catholic School Board (LDCSB) confirmed.
TVDSB officials said the Thursday return date for secondary school students coincides with the start of quadmester three, while LDCSB officials said the delay was “due to the transition between octomesters and secondary PD day.”
The return of in-person learning also includes local schools under Conseil scolaire catholique Providence and Conseil scolaire Viamonde.
“We know that this is very welcome news for students and for parents. I’m pleased to have our students back in school, and we also know that there’s very little transmission that is happening in schools,” said Mark Fisher, director of education for the TVDSB, during an interview on 980 CFPL’s London Live with Mike Stubbs.
Fisher added that school board officials were anticipating a potential return to class next week with the recent decline in local case numbers. Learning has been online only for the majority of students since the Christmas break.
“We’re really, really happy to have our kids back in class next week,” he said.
In a separate interview, Linda Staudt, director of education for the LDCSB, said the board did not receive a lot of notice, but was nevertheless delighted by the news.
“Originally, we were asked to wait until Feb. 11, but this is… it’s nice and very encouraging and we’re very glad that we’ll be able to welcome back students and staff once again to our buildings,” she said.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Thursday the government made its decision based on recommendations from the province’s chief medical officer of health and with the support of local medical officers of health.
The province says its top doctor will continue to review public health trends and advise when in-person learning can resume in other public health units, and that local public health units will continue to have the authority to close schools based on their own circumstances.
Parents and guardians can also continue to have their children enrolled in remote learning.
“The government agrees with the growing consensus in the medical community that returning students to in-person learning is essential to the wellbeing, development and mental health of children,” Lecce said in a statement.
Thursday’s announcement comes after the government allowed schools in seven other public health units to resume in-person learning this week.
All students began their winter term online as part of a provincial lockdown, and at least 520,000 students are now able to return back to in-person learning. While the majority of students in the London area were learning remotely, students with special education needs who are unable to participate in remote learning have been learning in-person.
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Dr. Chris Mackie, the medical officer of health for London and Middlesex, told 980 CFPL Thursday he had spoken with Ontario’s chief medical officer of health on Tuesday and with Lecce on Wednesday, and echoed the minister’s comments about mental health.
“We know that children’s mental health is severely impacted by school closures, and sometimes that is necessary,” he said. “But when we can get schools open safely, that makes a big positive difference for the mental health of students, not to mention the mental health of the parents that might have been trying to help them through remote learning at home.”
Nearly all student cases reported locally have been acquired at home, Mackie said, adding there will never be a situation where people are indoors and the risk of contracting the virus is zero. However, he said, “these measures will help to make sure that schools are safe.”
Those measures include stricter mask rules and stricter screening protocols.
Under the beefed-up protections, all students in grades one to three will be required to wear masks in school — something already enforced by TVDSB and LDCSB — and all students in grades one through 12 will be required to wear a mask outside when physical distancing can’t be maintained. Masks are also recommended for students in JK and SK kindergarten.
Both the TVDSB and LDCSB say secondary students will also be required to confirm that they have completed the self-assessment screening tool prior to attending school in-person. More information will be distributed by the school boards directly to students, parents and guardians.
In its announcement, the province also hinted at expanding access to targeted asymptomatic testing, similar to what has been done at some GTHA schools.
The TVDSB’s Mark Fisher had no information to share on the matter Thursday, saying the board itself had yet to hear specific details about what that testing would look like.
“When we get the go-ahead from the provincial government, we will certainly be working very closely with our health units to determine what the appropriate places would be for that testing to happen,” he said.
According to Mackie, the province has made some rapid testing available which will be “deployed in various ways.”
“For example, if there is a case in a school, can we get kids tested with the rapid test so that the turnaround time is a lot quicker? Our partners at Thames Valley Family Health Team who are operating the assessment centres believe that they can offer some capacity there, so that’s much appreciated,” he said.
Although students are returning to class amid lower case rates locally, Mackie stressed that those positive developments don’t mean the second wave of the pandemic is over.
“It’s not an indication that it’s safe to be gathering indoors without masks. It doesn’t mean that we’re reopening Ontario … It doesn’t mean we should be taking any of those other measures off the table,” he said.
Responding to the province’s announcement, NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the Ford government needs to cap class sizes at 15, ensure school ventilation is improved and provide paid sick days to make schools safer.
“Many parents and students are eager to see a return to in-person learning, but without proper safety measures from (Premier) Doug Ford, we’re at risk of more illness and future school closures,” she said in a statement.
New provincial modelling shows COVID-19 case rates are falling in Ontario, but the spread of the more contagious U.K. variant presents a “significant threat” to controlling the pandemic.
The findings come in projections released by the province’s health and science advisors.
— With files from The Canadian Press