Education Minister Stephen Lecce says that he has “directed” school boards to begin the academic year with a mix of in-person and remote instruction but will allow for “regional variance” beginning in October.

On Friday, Lecce said that school boards will be asked to prepare three scenarios for the fall, ranging from online learning only to a full resumption of in-class instruction.

Lecce said individual boards and local public health officers will able to decide what option to select depending on the risk posed by COVID-19 in their communities.

On Saturday, however, the education minister told CP24 that he has “directed” boards to at least start with an “adapted model,” wherein students would attend in-person classes on alternating days or weeks and be “cohorted” into groups of no more than 15.

He said that a region-by-region approach could then begin in October in recognition of the fact that “the risk of COVID-19 is not linear” and will vary from board to board.

“We are taking two million kids in Ontario who will have been out of class for six months by September. It is a long time and it has a large social, emotional and mental health impact on these kids. But for six months the system has not had a child in a class, so I want to start this off safely and cautiously,” he said. “So we are actually standardizing in September to have a cautious restart but where we are allowing regional variance is for the months of October, November and December.”

In-person instruction in Ontario schools was halted in mid-March in order to limit the spread of COVID-19.

It was initially supposed to resume in May but was pushed back several times before the province ultimately confirmed that schools would remain closed until the fall.

Speaking with CP24, Lecce said that it is “critical” that students are eventually able to resume “day-to-day conventional learning” but he said that the bottom line right now is “minimizing risk” and ensuring “safety remains the paramount priority.”

He said that scheduling will be a “big priority” for boards over the summer “so that they can make sure that they can get students in and out safely using a cohorted model for the month of September.”

He also conceded that there may be some challenges posed by the cohort model, particularly when it comes to teachers of specialized classes, like physical education or drama.

“There will be times where there will be one teacher that is able to teach a variety of those subjects and there will be times when we need to bring a teacher in,” he said. “We may have to use a digital means to have a teacher down the hall brought live into these classrooms. There will be a variety of innovations that will have to come in through this process.”