The Ford government has unveiled its back-to-school guidelines calling for students in Grades 1 to 12 to continue to wear masks “indoors in school, including in hallways and during classes, as well as on school vehicles.”
Students are not required to wear masks outdoors, and younger children in kindergarten are not required to wear them. The plan emphasizes outdoor activities – allowing kids to play during recess with friends from other classes – and allowing shared materials again, such as toys in kindergarten.
Elementary and high schools will reopen with classes five days a week; however, cohorting will remain for elementary students, who will be in one cohort for the entire day. Cohorted lessons will stay together with one teacher, where possible.
Students may be placed into small groups (for example, special education support and English-language learning) with other cohorts. Students may use common spaces (for example, cafeterias, libraries).
Back-to-school document:Guide to Reopening Schools_AODA
The plan warns school boards to be prepared for potential closure, but Ontario’s chief medical officer of health said he doesn’t believe that will happen.
“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,” Dr. Kieran Moore said.
He suggested dealing with COVID-19 in schools will eventually be akin to the flu.
“I think we have to normalize COVID-19 for schools and have an approach that’s prudent, that’s cautious, but that realizes yep, we’re going to have a rise in cases, but we’re going to adhere to the best practices to minimize the spread and keep our communities safe,” Moore said.
Members of different cohorts can interact outside with distancing encouraged or inside with further distancing and masking. For high schools in the fall semester, school boards have been instructed to timetable students with no more than two courses at a time “to preserve the option of reverting to more restrictive measures, if needed.”
Some school boards may implement an alternating week or “modified semester” model (Week 1: Course A/Course B, Week 2: Course C/Course D), with support from their local health unit.”
Students do not need to stay within their cohort during recess and outdoor breaks, but distancing should be encouraged between cohorts as much as possible.
Schools are encouraged to remove unnecessary furniture and place desks with as much distancing as possible. Desks should face forward rather than in circles or groupings. Periods of student movement should be staggered, if possible, to limit student congregation in the hallways,” officials say.
All staff and students must also self-screen every day before attending school. “School boards should provide parents with a checklist to perform daily screening of their children before arriving at school, and self-assessment tools should be made available.”
The document does not mention anything about COVID-19 testing. Schools will primarily be relying on families to self-screen for symptoms of COVID-19 at home but may have to do on-site confirmation of screening during periods when transmission might be higher, such as after a holiday.
Regarding lunch, the government says students may eat together outdoors without distancing indoors, including a minimum distance of two metres maintained between cohorts and as much distancing as possible within a cohort.
As for ventilation, the document says, “school boards are expected to continue optimizing air quality in classrooms and learning environments through improving ventilation and filtration.” For schools or parts of schools without mechanical ventilation, school boards are expected to place standalone high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter units in all classrooms and learning environments.
The Premier said last week the comprehensive back-to-school plan would include making proper ventilation.
“We’re making sure that we increase the protocols, we’re making sure the two million kids going back to school are going to be safe,” Doug Ford said on Wednesday.
“As well as the teachers from changing everything from the filters to making sure they have proper ventilation in the schools.”
The government also says school boards should support outdoor education and open windows where this augments ventilation for classrooms and learning environments.
Music programs are permitted in areas with adequate ventilation. Singing and the use of wind instruments will be allowed. Clubs, activities, sports teams, bands (without wind instruments) and extra-curricular activities are permitted. Cohorts may interact outdoors with physical distancing encouraged.
The rules on when students have to stay home have not yet been updated, but Moore signalled they would likely change.
“We did a lot of testing for very mild symptoms like runny nose and found we didn’t get a lot of positives at a population level, so we’ve narrowed down the symptom list to those that are very specific to COVID-19,” he said.
That list includes fever, cough, increasing shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell and in children, vomiting, and diarrhea in children.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce will not answer questions about the plan until Wednesday when he announces $25 million more in ventilation funding for standalone HEPA filter units.
Schools with mechanical ventilation are expected to use the highest-grade filters possible and turn their systems on at least two hours before school starts. Schools are expected to have standalone HEPA filter units in all classrooms.
The plan says protocols may be rolled back over time, dependent on vaccination rates, but doesn’t make shots mandatory for staff or students.
With files from The Canadian Press