Students across several schools in Southern Ontario, excluding COVID-19 hotspots Toronto, Peel, and York Region, will return to the classroom for in-person learning next Monday, education minister Stephen Lecce announced.
Elementary and secondary schools in the following Public Health Units (PHUs) – will return to in-person learning on Feb. 8:
- Brant County Health Unit
- Chatham-Kent Public Health
- Durham Region Health Department
- Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit
- Halton Region Public Health
- City of Hamilton Public Health Services
- Huron Perth Public Health
- Lambton Public Health
- Niagara Region Public Health
- Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit
- Region of Waterloo Public Health and Emergency Services
- Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health
- Windsor-Essex County Health Unit
“Following the best medical advice, with the clear support of both Ontario’s and the local Medical Officers of Health, we are reopening schools across the province knowing that we have taken additional steps and made additional investments to better protect our students and staff,” said Minister Lecce.
“Nothing is more important than returning kids to school safely because it is crucial for their development, mental health, and future success.”
Students inside the GTA – such as Toronto, York, and Peel Regions – will be back at school as of Tuesday, Feb. 16.
Ontario’s top physician, Dr. David Williams, was joined by Lecce to confirm that these various school boards – such as Durham, Halton, Hamilton, and Windsor-Essex, among others, – have been deemed safe to re-open following months of virtual, at-home learning.
“In the Peel, Toronto and York Region PHUs, where schools are continuing with remote learning until Feb. 16, before and after school programs will be permitted to reopen on that day and emergency child care will remain available until and including February 12, to support eligible front-line workers,” the government says.
The Ford government previously said that students in hotspot regions with high daily counts of COVID-19, including the aforementioned school boards, would be learning from home until at least Feb. 10, which changed today.
On Monday, Lecce and Doug Ford said the province was still deciding if students that are learning online can return to physical classrooms by then.
“I understand that people want their kids back to school and they want to make sure that, you know their kids’ mental health (is OK),” Ford said today.
“Along with the parents, imagine having kids in your house all day long when you are trying to work from home. It is a real challenge, so our goal is to make sure the kids get back as soon as possible.”
Ontario says it’s introducing new measures to continue to protect students and staff against COVID-19 in the classroom, including, but not limited to province-wide access, in consultation with the local PHU, to targeted asymptomatic testing for students and staff, as well as mandatory masking requirement for students in Grades 1-3 and masking requirement for Grades 1-12 outdoors where physical distancing cannot be maintained.
The province also recently supported the hiring of 3,400 teachers (with an additional 890 projected to be hired), the hiring of 1,400 custodians (with an additional 400 projected to be hired), and the hiring of over 500 principals, vice-principals and admin staff to support new virtual schools.
All students in Ontario began the month of January with virtual learning as part of a provincial lockdown.
The province has since taken a staggered approach to reopen physical classrooms, starting first with Northern Ontario and rural schools where case rates are lower.
On Monday, around 280,000 students returned to class across various PHUs, including the Eastern Ontario Health Unit, Middlesex-London Health Unit, Southwestern Public Health, and Ottawa Public Health.
Later in the day, Dr. Williams said it was his “hope” that all students in Ontario could return to in-person learning as early as next week.
“Reducing the transmission of COVID-19 is fundamental to keeping our communities and schools safe,” said Dr. Williams.
“Our collective efforts, like strictly adhering to all public health measures, in addition to the enhanced safety measures in schools, will help keep communities healthy and students learning alongside their peers in their classrooms.”
Positive cases per 100,000 in Toronto and Peel Region (Toronto in Pink, Peel in Purple)
According to provincial data, as of Feb. 3, the province is reporting 7,323 school-related COVID-19 cases just over the past two weeks. Of that total, 5,131 were positive cases in students while the rest were staff members.
There are over 60 schools in Toronto reporting at least one case of COVID-19, and 34 schools across both Mississauga and Brampton in Peel Region with at least one person infected.
SickKids recently confirmed that the return to school this past fall was successful at a time when community transmission was low.
Lecce says leading medical experts have stated that schools in Ontario remain safe, with school boards reporting approximately 80 percent of schools at the end of last year not reporting an active case, and 99.6 percent of students never having reported a case of COVID-19.
Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s chief medical officer of health, recently said her office was actively discussing with the province how students can return safely to in-person learning.
She also said that Toronto Public Health (TPH) is looking into what further enhancements could be put in place to create an even higher standard of safety before schools reopen.
This announcement also comes as experts call for aggressive COVID-19 testing in schools if those in Ontario’s hotspots are to open safely again.
With files from 680 NEWS Business Editor Richard Southern and the Canadian Press