The Ford government's school reopening plan for September requires all students in grades 4 to 12 to wear masks when indoors, with high school students in Ontario's larger cities attending class on alternating days.
The plan, which includes $309 million in additional funds for school boards, says mask use for smaller children will not be mandatory but they will be "encouraged to wear masks in common spaces."
Under the plan, high school students in 24 school boards including all boards in the GTA will be required to attend class on alternating days, with class sizes kept to 15 in most cases.
The aim is to have students attend class in person at least 50 per cent of the time they normally would, and for students to be kept in the same 15-pupil cohort for as many of their different classes as timetables will allow.
High schools in smaller communities will be allowed to accept all students, five days per week.
Meanwhile in elementary schools, officials speaking on background on Thursday said class sizes will not deviate from the averages mandated before the pandemic began, which in Grade 4 for instance is 24.5 students.
"The fact is we know more about this virus than we did when first closed our schools and we know how to stop the spread," Premier Doug Ford said Thursday.
Elementary classes will be cohorted through the day, eating lunch together and going out for staggered recess in their classroom groups.
Desks and tables in classrooms will be kept apart as much as possible, but ministry officials say they cannot guarantee two, or even one metre distancing in all settings.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said there would be at least one metre distancing between desks and tables in classrooms, and that distancing was more important at the secondary school level.
"The advice I have received from public health is that the risk is greater among older children in high schools," he said, adding distancing was just one of a "suite" of measures, including masking and embedding public health nurses in the school system.
The guidelines released Thursday in some ways exceed, but in other ways fall behind what was called for Wednesday by epidemiologists and pediatricians across Ontario.
In a document published by SickKids Hospital, doctors recommended mask use only at the high school and middle school level, and encouraged distancing between desks in classrooms of at least one metre.
Lecce said it was his understanding that mask use was less helpful for younger children.
"The evidence presented to cabinet overwhelmingly was that it was less effective in the earlier years."
Thursday's announcement comes a week before the province’s 72 school boards were expected to lay out their plans for the academic school year to the province.
The Ford government had previously asked school boards to prepare for three scenarios in the fall: regular in-class instruction with physical distancing measures in place, online-only learning and a hybrid model blending both approaches with class sizes limited.
Lecce initially expressed a preference for the hybrid model, which would see no more than 15 students attending class on alternating days or weeks.
But more recently he and Ford expressed preference for full-time, in-class learning.
Government opposition critics, school boards and unions have said that if classes are to resume fulltime, the province will have to significantly increase education funding so that staff and students can be kept safe during the pandemic.
The $309 million provided by the Ford government is in addition to the increase of $736 million in board budgets for the year, and breaks down to include $80 million for additional teachers and custodians, $60 million for personal protective equipment for staff, $50 million to hire as many as 500 public health nurses to support the school system and $24 million to boost the provincial network of labs screening for COVID-19.
It is not clear whether $80 million will hire the number of staff needed to adequately deliver class instruction as described in the plan.
People for Education Executive Director Annie Kidder said she was "surprised and happy" about the mask use mandate, but questioned if the money allocated would be enough.
"I am also wondering if whether or not the amount of money they have announced is really enough to cover the extra support staff and teachers needed to really implement this plan well so that kids will have everything that they need," she said.
The Official Opposition NDP pointed out that the $80 million amounts to $16,000 per physical school in Ontario.
"Classrooms were already overcrowded, and the Ford government is sending kids right back into those packed classrooms. These kids should be in smaller class sizes so they can physically distance, and reduce the chances of spreading an outbreak,” NDP education critic Marit Stiles said. “Funding a pathetic $16,000 per school for more staff means schools can’t break up kids into smaller, safer groups.”
Meanwhile the Liberals, who presented their own school reopening plan that called for hiring 27,000 additional staff at a cost of $3.2 billion, said Ford's plan was "half-baked."
"Parents across Ontario have been waiting anxiously for a plan to reopen schools safely – today they got one written on the back of a napkin," Liberal leader Steven Del Duca said.
A joint statement from the four largest teachers' unions in the province called Ford's plan "severely underfunded," estimating the cost of hiring staff and obtaining space to properly physically distance students was about $3 billion.
Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) President Sam Hammond said in a statement that “restaurants, grocery stores and gyms will have more safety restrictions in place than elementary schools given the insufficient funding allocated in this plan.”
Ford's plan also includes some unspecified amount of funding to purchase cloth masks for students who cannot afford them.
The public health nurses will be tasked with handling outbreaks, administering COVID-19 tests and helping school boards train staff and students on new infection control protocols.
"We will have to have the nurses train the staff and the children as much as possible," Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe said, adding everyone would need a primer on proper putting on, wearing and taking off of masks.
All students or their parents will have to complete a checklist on their health at the start of each day, and anyone feeling unwell will have to stay home.
Anyone who develops symptoms while at school will be separated from all others.
Ministry officials say each school should prepare an isolation room where anyone who is sick can go to isolate until they leave school property.
All sick pupils may need a COVID-19 test.
If they test negative, they may return to school 24 hours after symptoms end.
If they test positive, they may not return to school until advised to do so by a local public health unit.
"If we have evidence of a case, even a suspect case in that school, all of the contacts of that case be it a child or a teacher, will be tested, whether or not they are symptomatic," Yaffe said.
Any student who wishes to continue learning from home in September will be allowed to do so.
Field trips will be postponed until public health advice changes.
The plan also calls for twice daily cleaning of all school buses, and $40 million to hire additional drivers and provide them with personal protective equipment.
There will be assigned seating on all buses, with students from the same household or students in the same class cohort at the secondary level required to sit together.
Both Ford and Lecce were asked about teachers who do not wish to return to school to teach because a pre-existing health condition makes them more susceptible to COVID-19.
Ford said he hoped as many come back to teach in-person as possible.
"I really wish as many of them as possible if not all could show up to the classroom – they have done an incredible job and we really, really need them," he said.
Lecce said that any teacher who did not want to physically be in class would be expected to help with online instruction.
"We will respect that decision – boards will respect collective agreements but for those educators that cannot be educating in a classroom, there is an expectation that they can teach online."
School boards where high schools will host students on alternating days:
14.London Dist. Catholic
21.Greater Essex County
23.Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est
24.Conseil des écoles publique de l'Est de l'Ontario