Peel, York students return to classrooms as in-person learning resumes across the GTA

By Michael Ranger and The Canadian Press

In-person classes have resumed this week at the three COVID-19 hotspots in the GTA where schools had yet to reopen.

School boards in Toronto, Peel Region, and York Region were set to welcome back students on Tuesday after a stretch of online learning that began in January as part of a provincial lockdown.

However, students in Peel and York were forced to wait another day before heading back to class after a snowstorm pummelled the GTA on Tuesday morning.

In Toronto, classes were held in-person in Catholic and public school boards, though no transportation was provided.

The three regions are the last in Ontario to have students return to physical classrooms. The province allowed other regions to reopen gradually over the last few weeks.

A more detailed COVID-19 screening form must now be filled out by students or their guardians every day before coming to school.

Students in Grade 1 and above will also be required to follow provincial health guidelines and wear a mask whenever they’re indoors and during outdoor recess when physical distancing is not possible.

The province is also expanding asymptomatic COVID-19 testing at schools.

Provincial modelling presented last week said new, more infectious variants of the virus were poised to become prevalent and would cause cases to rise this month.

RELATED: Ontario lifts stay-at-home order in 27 regions as economic reopening continues

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Tuesday that new measures — including the expansion of an asymptomatic testing initiative, stricter masking rules for younger students, and a COVID-19 screening form — should help keep cases low in the province’s schools.

But he also called on school communities — in particular, high school students — to avoid mingling outside of schools to prevent the more infectious variants from spreading.

“We know we can keep schools open and safe,” Lecce said in an interview. “But it does require … the partnership of all of us because given that historically higher rate of positivity amongst high school kids, it’s going to require a real collective commitment to not congregate.”

He said the province is asking students and staff to “respect the cohorts” of student groups and not gather together outside their classes.

The Education Ministry reported that 50,000 asymptomatic tests are available for use on a voluntary basis across public health units this week, including at 40 schools in Toronto. Their deployment falls to local public health units, and an exact figure on tests deployed to date wasn’t yet available on Tuesday.

In a memo to the chairs of Ontario school boards, Lecce ordered Tuesday that asymptomatic tests be carried out in at least five percent of schools every week, starting Feb. 22 in schools outside Toronto, York, and Peel.

“If we need to ramp that up even further we’ll ramp that up,” Premier Doug Ford said. “(Students) need to get back in the classroom and learn in class.”

The requirement took effect in those three regions on Tuesday.

Toronto District School Board spokesperson Ryan Bird said the board was happy to welcome people back on Tuesday after a long, emotionally difficult break for some students.

There are some new routines in place today, Bird said, including the updated mask rules and stricter screening that requires students to stay home if anyone in the household is showing COVID-19 symptoms.

The board is also assisting with the asymptomatic testing pilot run by Toronto Public Health by sending out forms and information to guardians at eligible schools.

“It certainly is not normal,” Bird said of the return to classes during the pandemic. “Our job is to make it as normal as we can, given the circumstances.”

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