Several students in Ontario returned to the classroom in-person on Tuesday for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The province shuttered all schools on March 13 after cases of coronavirus disease began to rise.
This fall, boards will offer a mix of in-person classes and online learning for students who opt to stay home.
Some boards in different parts of the province reopened schools on Tuesday, while others will begin to restart over the next two weeks.
Last month, Education Minister Stephen Lecce gave boards permission to stagger school reopenings if they required more time to put pandemic safety protocols in place.
For instance, high school students started orientation at the Peel District School Board on Tuesday, with elementary students beginning Wednesday, while Toronto District School Board students will not begin returning to class until Sept. 15
Lecce said the province’s plan puts safety first and the government will move quickly to address outbreaks in Ontario’s schools.
He said he understands students, parents and teachers are concerned about the reopening.
“I think all citizens and all parents around the world on the eve of students going back face that angst in their heart,” Lecce said in an interview. “But if we continue to follow public health advice … I do believe that students can return to a safe and positive environment.”
The government recently released new guidance on how to deal with potential COVID-19 outbreaks in schools.
It emphasizes prevention and at-home screening, while teachers and principals will be asked to isolate any child that develops symptoms at school.
Public health officials will be given discretion to send entire cohorts of students home from school, or potentially close schools, if they feel that is the best way to manage an outbreak.
School boards, teachers’ unions and some parents have called on the government to mandate smaller class sizes to ensure physical distancing is possible in the classroom — and provide funding to make it happen.
Ontario’s four major teachers’ unions have appealed to the province’s labour board alleging the school reopening plan violates workplace safety laws.
NDP education critic Marit Stiles said as schools begin to reopen on Tuesday, she will be watching how students and teachers are able to physically distance in class.
Stiles said despite the pressure to cut elementary class sizes, the government has pushed ahead with its strategy.
“I think we’ve all been hoping that the government would get the message that the parents have been shouting pretty loudly,” she said. “I think the government really believes that they can lay the blame at the feet of the education workers and the boards and shrug their shoulders.”
Ontario students will be back in class September, but their schedules and class sizes may vary depending on where they live.
Back to class: Elementary students and many high schoolers will be in school five days a week in standard class sizes. However, secondary students at two dozen boards that are higher risk will only attend class half the time, and will spend the rest of the week working on “curriculum-linked independent work.” Parents will also have the option to keep their kids out of class, and boards must provide options for remote learning.
Groups: For high schoolers in high-risk districts, class sizes will be capped at 15. Meanwhile, elementary students won’t be broken up into smaller groups, but will be grouped into cohorts and their exposure to different teachers will be limited.
Physical distancing: While Education Minister Stephen 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” rather than being strictly enforced.
Masks: Masks will be mandatory for students in Grades 4 through 12, and will be strongly encouraged for younger kids when they’re in indoor common areas. Staff will be expected to wear masks.
Transportation: Some school boards may have more than one student assigned to a seat. When physical distancing isn’t possible, masks will be mandatory for students in Grades 4 to 12, and younger students will be encouraged but not required to do the same.
New routines: Students in some districts will have to pre-register for in-person schooling. Some schools may limit or even ban visitors, including parents. Breaks will be scheduled to allow students to wash their hands.