The Ontario government has announced that Toronto as well as Peel and York Regions, regions which have been hit hard by coronavirus case totals, will be last to return to the classroom under the province’s elementary and secondary school reopening plan.
School boards in the three regions will reopen facilities for students on Feb. 16.
Meanwhile, students in the Brant, Chatham-Kent, Durham, Haldimand-Norfolk, Halton, Hamilton, Huron-Perth, Lambton, Niagara, Simcoe-Muskoka, Waterloo, Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph and Windsor-Essex regions will be back in class on Monday.
Before- and after-school programs will also reopen in each region as schools resume, bringing an end to emergency child care facilities and programs for frontline workers the business day before.
Education Minster Stephen Lecce said the province made its reopening decisions based on advice from local medical officers of health and Ontario’s top doctor.
“We have seen a consistent decline in key transmission rates and with the full support of the chief medical officer of health … Ontario is ready to reopen our schools because it’s safe,” he said.
Lecce said the province will continue to monitor COVID-19 trends and take further action if necessary.
“If things change in the wrong direction, we will not hesitate to follow the advice of the chief medical officer of health,” he said.
Officials said individual public health units continue to reserve the authority to close schools to in-person learning based on local circumstances.
Among the new measures introduced to complement existing COVID-19 policies, officials said students between Grades 1 and 3 will now need to wear masks indoors and all students between Grades 1 and 12 will need to wear masks outdoors when physical distancing can’t be maintained.
The provincial government announced 3.5 million “high-quality” cloth masks are being sent to schools as a backup for students.
It was previously announced that schools in five COVID-19 hot spots, as well as several other regions, would reopen for in-person learning by Feb. 10.
All students in Ontario began January with online learning as part of a provincial lockdown.
The province has since taken a staggered approach to reopening physical classrooms, starting first with Northern Ontario and rural schools where case rates are lower.
Williams noted in an update on Friday that the use of rapid testing kits will be a key factor in reopening southern Ontario schools.
— With files from The Canadian Press