Ontario elementary school students should plan for a full return to class this fall while high school students in the larger school boards will attend class on alternate days, under the provincial government’s back-to-school plan.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce unveiled the plan just six weeks before students are scheduled to return to school and a week before the province’s 72 school boards were initially asked to outline their plans for the academic year.
Face coverings will be mandatory for students in Grade 4 to 12 while on school property while they will be “encouraged” for Kindergarten to Grade 3 students.
Masks and other appropriate PPE will be provided to teachers and other school staff, according to Lecce.
For students in kindergarten to Grade 8, they will be expected to attend class five days a week but they will be placed in one cohort for the entire day, which will include recess and lunch.
For high school students, there will be class cohorts of approximately 15 students attending class on alternate days or alternate schedules. This plan would apply to 24 designated school boards across the province including Toronto District, Toronto Catholic, Peel, York, Durham, Halton, Hamilton-Wentworth, and Ottawa-Carlton.
For the 48 non-designated school boards, who typically have smaller enrolments, students would be expected to attend class on a daily basis with enhanced health and safety protocols.
All school boards will adopt timetabling methods that emphasize cohorting of students as much as possible, to limit the number of direct and indirect student-to-student contacts.
“We’re going to get our kids back to schools in a way that looks and feels much like it used to,” Premier Doug Ford said, adding that the plan had been green-lit by top public health officials.
The province had previously asked school boards to prepare for three scenarios come September: regular in-class instruction with physical-distancing measures in place, full-time remote learning, and a hybrid model blending both approaches.
Lecce initially expressed a preference for the hybrid model, which would see no more than 15 students in class attending on alternating days or weeks. More recently, he expressed a preference for full-time, in-class learning.
Parents will have the option of remote learning for their kids and school boards will be asked to implement adapted and remote learning models should they be required.
Students with a high level of special education needs who are unable to study remotely will be permitted to attend class on a daily basis.
The government says a new school monitoring system will be put in place and any student or staff member who shows symptoms of COVID-19 will be immediately separated from others. Those individuals will not be allowed to return to school until they test negative and are symptom free for 24 hours and cleared by public health officials to return.
Schools will also be asked to keep a record of classes, transported students, and visitors, so that proper contact tracing can be done by public health officials.
The government is also making available $309 million in new funding, including $60 million for PPE, $80 million for extra staffing and $25 million for cleaning supplies. This is on top of the $25 million in funding previously announced for mental health and technology supports.
An updated report Wednesday from a group of doctors and education experts from across the province recommended a daily return-to-class plan with masks or face coverings for high school and middle school students, as well as smaller class sizes and staggered lunch breaks.