The Ontario government says students and staff will return to school for in-person learning on Jan. 5, 2022, and is introducing capacity limits to large venues as it grapples with controlling the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
The majority of classes in Ontario were previously scheduled to resume following the winter holiday break on Monday but that has been pushed back two days to Wednesday to give schools time to prepare.
“The Children’s Health Coalition – representing Ontario’s children’s hospitals, mental health agencies and rehabilitation centres – has emphasized that in-person education is critical to the mental health, development and well-being of children and youth,” the government said.
Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer of health, made the announcement Thursday afternoon.
Moore said all school and licensed child-care staff will be given N95 masks as an optional alternative to medical/surgical masks.
The government also said more supply of “high-quality three-ply” cloth masks will be provided for free for students and children in January.
There will also be an updated COVID-19 school and child-care screener ahead of returning to school for a more “rigorous screening and monitoring of symptoms.”
It is also continuing PCR testing eligibility for symptomatic students and staff.
The province is also deploying 3,000 more HEPA filters to schools, adding to the 70,000 already provided.
Students will only be permitted to engage in low-contact indoor sports and safe extra-curricular activities starting in January, the government said.
However, on Wednesday, hundreds of doctors signed a letter urging the Ford government to keep schools open using a “test-to-stay” strategy.
The strategy, which is also recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would see students, their siblings and teachers remain in the classroom following a close-contact exposure with the use of frequent rapid testing. The doctors said frequent testing, such as every second day, of school-based contacts has been shown to be the equivalent of self-isolation for controlling COVID-19 transmission.
That strategy was not mentioned in the province’s additional measures plan released on Thursday for returning to in-school learning for January.
Moore also introduced new capacity limits for large indoor entertainment venues such as concert venues, spectator arenas (i.e. sporting events) and theatres to be capped at no more than 1,000 people or 50 per cent capacity, whichever one is less, starting Friday, Dec. 31 at 12:01 a.m.
There is already a 50 per cent capacity limit for other public indoor settings such as gyms and restaurants.
Meanwhile, Ontario reported a record-breaking 13,807 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday.
The province also reported 965 people in general hospital wards with 200 patients in intensive care units due to a COVID-19-related illness as hospitalizations are on the rise following the surge in Omicron cases.
Test positivity also hit 30.5 per cent, meaning almost one in three tests are coming back positive for COVID-19 — the highest rate ever seen.
— With files from The Canadian Press