A group of doctors and education experts from across Ontario is recommending a daily return-to-class plan that will allow children to return school this fall.
The document released Wednesday comes six weeks after The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) unveiled its initial recommendations and five weeks before the school year is set to begin.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce is expected to announce the province’s plans for a return to school this fall on Thursday, sources have confirmed.
“While school closures were reasonable as part of the early pandemic response, current evidence and experience support the concept that children and youth can return to school in a manner that maximizes their health and minimizes risks from a public health perspective,” said the report’s authors.
Among the guidelines suggested are masks or face coverings for high school and middle school students but not for elementary kids, smaller class sizes, staggered lunch breaks, and one metre of physical distancing space between desks for students in elementary and middle school while two metres is recommended for high school students.
“Smaller class sizes should be a priority strategy as it will aid in physical distancing and reduce potential spread from any index case,” the report says. “Where needed, the use of non-traditional spaces should be explored to accommodate smaller classes in order to allow daily school attendance.”
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario says despite the report, it wants the government to exercise caution when it comes to elementary students.
“There was significant disagreement among the authors of the report regarding mandatory masks for elementary school students,” said ETFO President Sam Hammond. “The risks are too high. We need to keep students and educators safe and we certainly don’t want schools contributing to a second wave of the pandemic.”
“If a region has declared masks mandatory for indoor spaces, then we expect masks to be mandatory in elementary schools in that region regardless of age.”
The ETFO said it is also extremely concerned with the report’s recommendation that one metre physical distancing in classrooms between younger students would be similar to the two metre limit currently recommended by health officials.
The reports says the ability of the public school system to effectively carry out a return plan will depend in part on the resources made available to the schools. These include, but are not limited to, trained screeners at school entry, additional custodian and cleaning staff, more teachers and support teachers as well as rigorous testing and contact tracing strategies.
“Adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), hand hygiene supplies (soap and hand sanitizer) and environmental cleaning materials will be needed as well,” the report’s authors say. “Addressing structural deficiencies, such as large class sizes, small classrooms and poor ventilation, must be part of any plan to reopen schools.”
The report says it anticipates an increase in COVID-19 and other season respiratory infections once school resumes in the fall. However, given the adverse health and social impacts to kids and families, “school closure should be a last-resort intervention.”
“It needs to be recognized that it will not be possible to remove all risk of infection and disease now that SARS-CoV-2 is well-established in many communities.”
The report’s authors say while a full-time online learning experience or a hybrid model would likely mean fewer cases of COVID-19, both are considered insufficient and would pose problems for working parents and caregivers.
“A daily school model is best as it allows for consistency, stability and equity regardless of the region in which children and youth live.”
B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming announced Wednesday that most students from kindergarten to Grade 12 in that province are going to return to schools full time in September.
Fleming says on the advice of the provincial health officer, students will be organized into learning groups to reduce the number of people they come in contact with, cutting the risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus.
The government is also putting up $45.6 million to ensure safety measures, including increased cleaning of high-contact surfaces, an increased number of hand-hygiene stations and the availability of masks.
The complete SickKids report can be found below:
Files from The Canadian Press were used in this report