Ontario students will return to the classroom full-time in September with remote learning continuing to be an option, the province confirmed in its official back-to-school strategy — but the plan is thin on details about how schools will manage COVID-19 cases and outbreaks.
Staff and students Grade 1 and up must wear masks in indoor settings, with exceptions such as during meal breaks and low-contact physical activities, and self-screening will be required before coming into school facilities.
Team sports, field trips and extracurricular activities will be back on, along with assemblies and recess. Students can also share materials such as toys and art supplies and be in shared spaces including libraries and cafeterias.
But the 29-page document released Tuesday contains no protocols on managing COVID-19 outbreaks, nor does it set a threshold for when schools or classrooms should be shut down.
“Schools are safest where we maintain high rates of community immunity,” Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said at a news conference.
However, the plan also doesn’t indicate what level of transmission in the surrounding community might affect a school’s operations.
Dr. Moore emphasized the importance of vaccinations to prevent a possible spike in cases due to the delta variant into the fall. But asked under what circumstances schools might be forced to shut down, he replied, “I really don’t see our schools closing.”
“I think we have to normalize COVID-19 for schools,” he added, similar to the usual rise in cases of the flu each season.
More than 4,800 Ontario schools had to close due to COVID-19 cases at some point from September to June, with 11,462 students contracting the virus, provincial data shows.
“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 plan says.
Asked why the province isn’t tracking individual students’ vaccinations, Dr. Moore said that information would be gathered if there were an outbreak that needed to be investigated.
As for testing, Moore said the list of symptoms of concern is being scaled down to focus on more COVID-specific ones such as loss of taste. That being said, the province is looking at other testing options such as the swish-and-spit method or swabbing only in the front of the nose, he said.
For secondary students, school boards have been instructed to implement timetables with no more than two courses at a time for high school students in the fall semester ” to preserve the option of reverting to more restrictive measures, if needed.”
Music programs will be allowed in areas with good ventilation, with singing and wind instruments permitted in cohort groups with a distance of at least two metres.
The last page of the plan, entitled “Management of COVID-19 in schools,” states: “This section is forthcoming,” adding it will build on the guidance provided during the 2020-21 school year.
The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) called the Ford government’s plan “incomplete and inadequate.”
In a statement reacting to the strategy, the teachers’ union said the plan “loosens safety precautions” and will likely lead to more outbreaks and disruptions to in-person learning.
“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,” said ETFO President Sam Hammond.
The union said it favours in-person instruction and wants to see the government lower class sizes to ensure physical distancing, mandate masking for all students including in kindergarten, provide on-site asymptomatic testing in high-risk settings and immediately reverse an $800-million cut to public education for the upcoming school year, among other measures.
Meanwhile, Dr. Doris Grinspun, chief executive officer of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, said it’s a mistake for the province to not make vaccines mandatory for education workers and students over 12.
“Schools will have the largest congregate gathering in the country in general and in Ontario particularly because we are such a large population,” Dr. Grinspun told CBC News.
In an open letter sent to Premier Ford last week, the nurses’ group asked for mandatory vaccination, along with smaller class sizes and improved ventilation.
The group also wants the province to provide funding to make permanent positions for 625 public health nurses in Ontario schools.
Key takeaways from Ontario’s back-to-school plan:
- Staff and teachers will not be required to take COVID-19 vaccines.
- Students from Grade 1 to 12 are required to wear masks indoors (with exceptions such as low-contact physical activity and during eating).
- Staff and students must screen themselves every day using the tool provided by the province, although in some cases schools may be directed to do an enhanced screening.
- Anyone experiencing symptoms per the provincial screening tool should not attend school and potentially get tested or seek medical attention.
- School boards are expected to have all ventilation systems inspected and in good condition before the start of the school year.
- School boards without mechanical ventilation (those that rely on windows to bring in fresh air) are expected to place standalone high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter units in all classrooms.
Earlier in the day, the Ontario NDP called on the province to require education workers who are not fully vaccinated to take rapid COVID-19 tests when students head back to school in the fall.
Rapid tests, which Premier Ford dubbed “game-changers” back in February, were deployed in congregate care, long-term care homes and various essential workplaces. However, the back-to-school plan makes no mention of rapid tests.
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