School boards across Ontario will be required to offer virtual learning as an option for students for the entire 2021-22 school year, provincial officials confirmed Tuesday.

It is unclear how many students will opt for remote learning come September but during a briefing to outline plans for the 2021-22 school year, the province confirmed that all boards must present it as an option.

"We’ve committed ourselves to consulting on providing that choice beyond this year. What we heard in the consultation absolutely clearly is that parents want that choice for this September because we are unsure of where this pandemic will take us," Ontario's Education Minister Stephen Lecce said at a news conference on Tuesday afternoon.

"We are ensuring every board in Ontario will provide that choice, a virtual learning experience, and we’ve asked them to provide time to parents to make that choice."

Some school boards have already unveiled plans to offer virtual learning next year, including the Durham District School Board and the Waterloo Region District School Board.

In some cases, boards have already forced parents to confirm their decision about whether they plan to send their children back to the classroom this fall.

Schools have been closed across the province since the April break amid the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students have been learning remotely since that time and the province has not yet said if students will return at any point before the summer break.

Earlier this week, the Toronto District School Board confirmed that all summer school classes this year will be remote only.

"While students are home learning remotely, our province continues to directly tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. While we all want in-class learning to return this spring, we will not take risks with your child as we respond to high rates of COVID-19 in the community, intensive care units overwhelmed, and variants seamlessly entering from our porous international borders," Lecce said.

"But I want to assure parents that we will continue to work with and seek the advice of the chief medical officer of health on the way forward. The arrival of vaccines means there is hope on the horizon."

NDP Education Critic Marit Stiles said Lecce's announcement was "disappointing" and reaffirmed the government's objective of making virtual learning permanent.

"It's extremely clear from today's update that Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce are trying to push the province forward toward permanent online learning. Look, online learning has been absolutely horrible for so many families. It's hurt kid's mental health, it's hurt learning, it's hurt achievement, grades, it's forced parents out of the workforce," Stiles told reporters after Lecce's announcement.

"It's pretty clear that planning for online learning for the entire next school year is not just about COVID-19 it's about the government saving money off the backs of our kids and it always has been," she added.

Stiles said the government needs to invest in getting students back into the classroom.

"We need COVID safe capped class sizes, with better ventilation. We need more permanent mental health supports, more supports for all our students and our teachers who are exhausted. We need smaller class sizes, so our children can have more one on one attention."

Province promises more funding for student mental health

During today’s briefing, officials also provided a breakdown of the funding school boards can expect to receive next year, including what the province described as $2 billion in new supports.

The province says it plans to provide school boards with more than $80 million in dedicated funding for student mental health during the 2021-22 school year.

Officials say the funds will be used to employ more mental health professionals, provide professional learning for educators, and collaborate with community mental health providers for students who need more intensive supports.

In addition to funding for enhanced mental health resources, the province promised to make available $85.5 million to support “learning recovery and renewal” to deal with the impacts of the learning disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Officials say a “decline in kindergarten enrolment and disruption to learning” will require educators to put an emphasis on early reading and math. Funding will be provided for reading assessment supports, ongoing implementation of the elementary math curriculum, as well as a math intervention pilot for students in Grades 4 to 6 with special education needs. Funding will also be available for tutoring supports, the government says.

According to the province, $20 million will be provided to school boards during the 2021-22 school year to reach out to students who have “disengaged from learning,” including Black, Indigenous, and low-income students who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

As it did for the 2020-21 school year, the government says it will provide boards with “another year of temporary COVID-19 supports,” which total about $1.6 billion.

This includes up to $450 million for personal protective equipment and critical supplies, $86 million for public health nurses and asymptomatic testing, $65 million for transportation, and $15 million for technology.

It also includes up to $507.9 million that the province says school boards can access from their reserves. While boards were given access to reserve funds last year, the province says the key difference this year is for boards who have already accessed two per cent, the province will cover additional amounts needed this year.

The province notes that boards should budget about half of the aforementioned resources for the first half of the school year, including access to one per cent from reserves. The remaining funds will be confirmed by the government “if needed for the second half of the year” pending vaccine distribution.

“New or enhanced provisions” in this year’s funding allocation include $29.4 million for higher operating costs, such as ones related to ventilation systems and filter replacements, $383.6 million for staffing “with flexibility to meet local needs,” and $40 million over two years to address connectivity for remote learning technology.