With approximately five weeks to go until schools reopen in Ontario, the provincial government has outlined COVID-19 guidance for all schools in an effort to restore in-person classes at all boards.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the delivery of education in Ontario and across the globe over the past two school years,” a 29-page document issued to school boards and institutions across Ontario said.
“While the COVID-19 pandemic has affected students differently, there are key themes emerging including the need to focus on student mental health and well-being, supports for early reading and math and the re-engagement of students.”
The document, which rehashes elements of previous back-to-school plans, said staff at publicly funded boards and at private schools should be preparing to provide a full day (five hours) of in-person instruction five days a week. Ontario had the longest interruption to in-person classes in Canada during the 2020-21 school year.
However, they were also told this could be subject to change throughout the 2021-2022 school year and that remote learning shouldn’t be off the table should there be changes in the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the elementary school level (Grade 8 and below), students will be cohorted for the full day and, when possible, have one teacher. The guidance document said cohorts can mix outside so long as there is distancing and students can use common spaces like libraries, so long as existing public health guidance is followed.
There were exceptions allowed for cohorts in certain instances such as English-language lessons and special education support.
At the secondary school level, administrators were told to keep timetables to no more than two courses at a time to “preserve the option of reverting to more restrictive measures.” School staff were encouraged to prioritize prerequisite courses needed for post-secondary institutions. It also said some boards can rotate four subjects over two weeks (two subjects a week).
When it comes to remote learning, schools will be required to provide students with 300 minutes of learning opportunities for those parents who don’t want to send their children back to school. Staff were also urged to “be prepared for a potential closure” and should be prepared to pivot. Also, administrators were told to have remote learning plans on days when inclement weather is forecast should it be needed.
“School boards should have plans in place so they can move to remote learning quickly to ensure continuity of learning for students,” the document said.
Despite the provision for remote learning, Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, told reporters on Tuesday during his weekly briefing that he couldn’t envision schools being closed again. He suggested dealing with COVID-19 in schools will eventually be akin to the flu.
“I think we have to normalize COVID-19 for schools and have an approach that’s prudent, that’s cautious, but that realizes yep, we’re going to have a rise in cases, but we’re going to adhere to the best practices to minimize the spread and keep our communities safe,” Moore said.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce will not be available to answer questions about the plan until Wednesday when he is set to announce $25 million more in ventilation funding for standalone HEPA filter units.
Schools with mechanical ventilation are expected to use the highest-grade filters possible and turn their systems on at least two hours before school starts, and schools without are expected to have standalone Hepa filter units in all classrooms.
When it comes to vaccinations, the guidance follows past Ontario government messaging in that COVID-19 vaccinations will not be mandatory for anyone. However, those eligible were encouraged to get inoculated.
For daily COVID-19 protocols, students will need to complete self-screening and on-site screening can be directed by the Ontario Ministry of Education if there are periods of higher transmission (e.g. after a holiday). Rules on when students have to stay home weren’t updated as of Tuesday, but those are expected to change before September.
Students in Grades 1 through 12 will be required to wear face masks and coverings except for eating and during low-contact physical education classes. Kindergarten students were encouraged to wear a mask, but it won’t be required.
The document said at lunchtime, students will be able to eat together outside without distancing but inside there will need to be two metres between cohorts.
Gym and music classes will look different during the upcoming year.
Students can sing and play instruments, including wind instruments, in areas with adequate ventilation. Indoors, masks are encouraged but not required for singing if there is distancing, and two metres should also be maintained inside when playing wind instruments within a cohort. Outside, different cohorts can play music together — in jazz band, for example — with distancing encouraged.
For sports, the guidance initially said high-contact activities can be played outdoors. At first, the document said a basketball game could be played outside, but inside students could do distanced drills. However, a day after the announcement the provincial government changed its position and permitted high-contact sports indoors so long as public health measures are followed. Low-contact sports can be played inside if cohorts are distanced from each other, with masking encouraged but not required. Pools will be allowed to be used, with distancing on the deck.
There was also a bit of good news for students who want to return to clubs and activities outside of the classroom. This year there is more definitive guidance that sees the return of extracurriculars. Assemblies will also be allowed to resume as well as field and overnight trips.
When asked about the provincial plan, the scientific director for Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table told Global News the emphasis on masking and ventilation is a key part of the overall plan.
“That’s probably the most important part here. Rather than hygiene theatre, we need just the best possible ventilation and in cases where this is not possible we need air filtration with Hepa filters to get the most of the setting,” Peter Jüni said, adding it appeared the government took most of the advice offered by the advisory body.
“With cohorting and physical distancing, we’re on the right track if we have a situation where the community transmission is not too high.”
Going forward, Jüni added he would like to see more vaccine data at a school and neighbourhood level so the community can have a better understanding of how inoculations are providing an impact.
The Ontario Public School Boards’ Association applauded the plan but said the government must ensure boards are fully funded for their extra ventilation, personal protective equipment and cleaning costs.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said teachers believe in-person learning is the best instruction model, but the union doesn’t believe the plan accomplishes that safely. President Sam Hammond called on the government to lower class sizes, mandate masking for all students including those in kindergarten, maintain existing precautions in gym class, and keep isolation rules for people with symptoms.
— With files from The Canadian Press