Elementary and secondary school students will both return to the classroom five days a week in the fall and they will be greeted by an environment that more closely resembles the pre-pandemic normal with the return of field trips, school assemblies, music programming and extracurricular activities.
The Ministry of Education released a 26-page document Tuesday afternoon that will guide the return to the classroom in September.
The document lays out a plan for both elementary and secondary students to return to school fulltime, unless they opt to participate in remote learning which will continue to be made available by school boards.
For secondary students, it will mark the first time that they have returned to school five days a week since the beginning of the pandemic. Last year, a split model was used in which secondary students attended classes in person on an alternating schedule with another cohort.
The document does warn schools to be prepared for another suspension of in-person learning should transmission spike but it does not include any thresholds for shuttering classrooms once again.
“I really can't envision or see any closure of any schools in Ontario, or colleges or universities. We must maintain them open going forward,” Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said during a briefing on Tuesday afternoon. “I think we have to normalize COVID-19 for the schools and have an approach that's prudent and that's cautious but recognizes that yes we're going to have a rise in cases but we are going to adhere to the best practices to minimize the spread and to keep our communities safe.”
The release of the return to school plan comes as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Ontario and public health officials express concerns about a potential fourth wave triggered by the spread of the more contagious Delta variant among unvaccinated populations.
However, that does not appear to have dissuaded the Ford government from pursuing the more normal return to the classroom called for by a number of experts, even at the elementary level where most students are not yet old enough to receive a COVID-19 vaccine which has only been approved for those 12 and up.
That means that field trips, school assemblies and extracurricular activities will be permitted in September in all grades and while students in Grades 1 through 12 will be required to wear masks indoors, they will be able to take them off to engage in low contact indoor physical activity.
Inter-school sports will also resume for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, though high contact sports can only take place outdoors.
Music programming, meanwhile, will be allowed to resume with wind instruments and singing permitted indoors so long as two metres of distancing is maintained.
The ministry is also doing away with symptom screening at school entrances but will continue to require that parents screen their children at home and keep them out of classes if they are exhibiting symptoms.
“I do though want us all to start off cautiously, prudently and safely with masking in place because of the risk of Delta but the reassessment of public health measures I think should be done on a regular basis to see that they're essential and mandatory,” Moore said on Tuesday. “If communities in Ontario have a very low incidence of disease and very high immunization rates, they in partnership with their local public health agencies and school boards could review any public health measures, such as the requirement for masking.
Cohorting to continue in elementary schools
Ontario schools were closed for in-person learning in April as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations soared during the third wave of the pandemic.
At the time there had been more than 15,000 school-related cases of COVID-19 reported during the academic year, though Education Minister Stephen Lecce repeatedly insisted that most cases were contracted in the community and not in the classroom.
The plan released on Tuesday calls for school boards to continue to take a number of precautions aimed at reducing the potential for transmission, including the return of a cohorting model at the elementary level with “as much distancing as possible between students.”
The plan also says that periods of student movement should be staggered to “limit student congregation in the hallways” and that school should develop arrival and exit procedures to maximize distance.
That means that things like tape and markers on floors to promote one-direction travel are likely here to stay.
At the secondary level, the ministry says that students should be enrolled in no more than two courses at a time in order to preserve the option of reverting to “more restrictive” cohorting measures if required.
It says that school boards should also be prepared for a return to remote learning should circumstances change.
“To be prepared for a potential closure, school boards should have plans in place so they can move to remote learning quickly to ensure continuity of learning for students,” the guidance document notes. “Staff, students and families should be aware of the school board’s remote learning plan should the need arise to move to remote learning in the event of classroom, school or board closure.”
No plan for asymptomatic testing
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore has suggested that there will be different rules so that vaccinated students who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 or come into close contact with a suspected case can return to the classroom quicker.
The plan, however, does not include any new policies on the guidance for symptomatic students or provide details on how outbreaks might be handled.
In fact, the final section of the report, “Management of COVID-19 in schools,” is left blank with a note suggesting that more details are “forthcoming.”
There is also no information about asymptomatic testing programs, which the ministry used to detect hundreds of previously unreported cases in select schools during this past academic year.
In a statement issued on Tuesday afternoon, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario called the guidance “incomplete and inadequate.”
- MORE: 'Lots of questions': Teachers’ unions look for answers after release of Ontario back-to-school plan
They said that in order to safely reopen schools the Ford government must commit to lower class sizes and “provide accessible, on-site asymptomatic testing in high-risk scenarios.”
“It’s clear that Premier Ford and Minister Lecce are relying on vaccinations alone to provide a safe school reopening and a return to extracurriculars. What they seem to have forgotten is that Ontarians remain at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19, and most elementary children are ineligible for vaccines,” ETFO President Sam Hammond said.
Other highlights of the plan:
- Schools with existing mechanical ventilation systems will have to use the highest grade filters possible (MERV 13 if possible) and operate the systems two hours or more both before and after the school days begins.
- Schools without mechanical ventilation systems will be required to place standalone high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter units in all classrooms.
- School boards are required to develop inclement weather plans and policies which may include pivoting to remote learning.
- Students can eat together in cafeterias but the ministry says that a capacity limit should be established to ensure a distance of two metres can be kept between cohorts. The ministry also says that larger schools should consider staggered lunch hours.
- Shared homerooms, libraries and computer/technology labs are permitted but distancing should still be maintained between cohorts.
- School vehicles can operate at full capacity but students should be assigned seats and a seating plan should be kept in the event it is needed for contact tracing.