OHS Canada Magazine

Ontario government reveals back-to-school plan for September

Elementary students will be in school full time


Ontario’s elementary students and many high schoolers will return to traditional classrooms full time in the fall. (Adobe Stock)

By Nicole Thompson

TORONTO — Ontario’s elementary students and many high schoolers will return to traditional classrooms full time in September, the provincial government announced Thursday.

But the province’s new back-to-school plan indicates that high school students at two dozen boards — including the Toronto District School Board — will only attend class half the time in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Those students will have maximum class size of 15, and will receive “curriculum-linked independent work” on days when they are not in school.

Meanwhile, elementary students will be in school full time, and while their classes won’t be broken up into smaller groups, they won’t be allowed to mix with other cohorts.

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“We’re taking every step and every precaution to be ready for September,” Premier Doug Ford said. “While we’re facing an unprecedented situation, we’re prepared for anything, armed with the best medical advice available to protect your child at school.”

The plan gives parents the option to keep their kids out of class, and says boards must make it possible for students to learn remotely.

Masks for older students

It says students in grades 4 through 12 must wear masks in class, while younger kids are encouraged to do so in indoor common areas.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said that’s because the latest science suggests older kids are more likely to spread the virus than their younger counterparts.

That’s also why some boards can only have high schoolers in class part time, he said.

And while Lecce said the aim is to keep students one metre apart from each other, a guidance document says only that schools should promote “as much distancing as possible.”

Instead of strictly enforcing physical distancing, the document says schools will be leaning more heavily on other public health measures, including keeping students separated into designated groups — or “cohorts” — and encouraging hand hygiene.

Managing illness

The goal is also to keep everyone out of school when they’re sick, Lecce said.

“We will also be supporting public health efforts by continuing to promote our screening protocols so that students and staff do not show up to school if they have any symptoms of COVID-19, even if they are mild,” he said.

Should a student or staff member develop symptoms while in school, they are to be immediately separated from others until they can get home — and not on student or public transit.

Anyone with symptoms is to be tested. If they test positive, they can only return to class once they’re given the go-ahead by public health officials, the document says. Those who test negative after an initial positive test can only return once they’ve been symptom-free for 24 hours.

Lecce added that teachers who are immunocompromised or feel unsafe returning to class for other reasons can focus their efforts on teaching students who are opting for remote learning.

The government also announced $309 million in funding to make the plan work, including $60 million for personal protective equipment and $80 million for extra staffing.

Critics weigh in

But opposition parties argued that the plan doesn’t go far enough to protect students.

Marit Stiles, education critic for the Opposition NDP, said the Tories were cutting corners in order to save money.

“Online learning didn’t work for most high school students,” she said. “Now the Ford government is forcing them to do half their classes alone at home, with no guarantee they’ll get instruction, let alone help or one-on-one support.”

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca agreed, saying Ford was “shortchanging” schools.

The highly anticipated announcement comes just six weeks before back-to-school season and a week before the province’s 72 school boards were initially asked to have their plans for the academic year submitted to the province.

The province further announced Thursday that day-care centres across the province will be allowed to return to their full capacity on September 1, in time for back-to-school.

The announcements come as Ontario logged fewer than 100 new cases of COVID-19 for a second day in a row, with 89 new cases reported on Thursday.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said 28 of the province’s 34 public health units are reporting five or fewer cases, with 17 reporting no new ones.

She said the number of people in hospital, in intensive care and on a ventilator all went down, and the province was able to complete more than 27,600 tests the previous day.