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Ontario back-to-school plan: Mandatory masks indoors, vaccine status not required

Last Updated Aug 3, 2021 at 6:30 pm EDT

Ontario’s long-awaited back-to-school plan will make masks mandatory indoors for all staff and students, but teachers won’t be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 when classes resume this fall.

The province’s plan, released Tuesday, only briefly touched on vaccinations, saying “school boards are encouraged to work with local public health units to reach out to families to promote vaccination.”

The Science Advisory Table for Ontario recommended that vaccine status “should be reported to schools, so they can have anonymized data to help inform public health efforts” but that was not included in the province’s plan.

The Ministry of Education says it is taking a “measured approach” to the reopening of schools that will emphasize screening and cleaning to keep the rapidly spreading Delta variant of COVID-19 at bay.

Remote learning will remain an option and the plan will be re-evaluated regularly.

Mandatory masks

All students from Grades 1 to 12 will be required to wear masks indoors with “reasonable exceptions,” and all staff and visitors will be under the same directive. Masks will also be required on all school vehicles.

Masks can be temporarily removed, with a minimum physical distancing of two meters, when eating/drinking or engaging in low-contact physical activity (gym class).

Students won’t have to wear masks outdoors, but distancing is encouraged.

Kindergarten students are “encouraged but not required” to wear masks indoors and on school vehicles.

The province says students “will attend in-person learning daily for the full school day (five instructional hours) in elementary and secondary schools across the province.

For secondary schools, “some school boards may implement an alternating week or ‘modified semester’ model.”

“It is important that all models allow secondary students to earn compulsory credits required for the Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD), as well as provide access to types of elective courses that support all postsecondary pathway destinations,” the document notes.

Cohorting

The government’s plan includes keeping elementary school students in Kindergarten to Grade 8 in one cohort for the full day with one teacher.

There was no limit on the number of students that would be in each cohort mentioned in the back-to-school plan.

The COVID-19 science advisory did not specify the number of students that should be in each cohort, but said cohorts should be “as small as possible,” and this should be implemented at the beginning of the year.

Members of different cohorts will be allowed to interact outdoors while distanced and inside if masked and distanced.

High school students will not be in cohorts and school boards are being instructed to timetable students for no more than two courses at a time.

Exceptions can be made for smaller schools where contacts can be limited by cohorting grades.

Remote learning remains an option

Families who prefer to continue with remote learning will have that option, the Ministry said, with school boards “required to provide students learning remotely with 300 minutes of learning opportunities …”

In the event that schools are forced to close again, “school boards should have plans in place so they can move to remote learning quickly to ensure continuity of learning for students.”

Screening and cleaning

In addition to the mandatory mask policies, the province’s plan states that “all staff and students must self-screen every day before attending school.”

“School boards should provide parents with a checklist to perform daily screening of their children before arriving at school and self assessment tools should be made available to staff to ensure awareness of possible symptoms of COVID-19. The province will continue to provide a screening tool for use by all school boards and may update this throughout the school year.”

School boards could also be directed by the Ministry to perform daily on-site confirmation of self-screening, and boards are expected to have a process in place to implement on-site confirmation.

The Ministry says “school boards should develop a program for cleaning and disinfecting schools,” and schools “should train students on appropriate hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, including the use of alcohol-based hand rub (ABHR), and reinforce its use.”

“School boards should develop a program for cleaning and disinfecting schools, including reviews of existing practices to determine where enhancements might be made, including frequency and timing of cleaning and disinfection, areas to clean and/or disinfect, choice of cleaning products, child safety, staffing, signage, and PPE for cleaning staff.”

Ventilation

The Ministry says for schools with full mechanical ventilation, school boards are expected to:

• have all ventilation systems inspected and in good working order prior to the start of the school year
• use the highest-grade filters possible, preferably MERV 13 filters
• undertake frequent filter changes through the school year
• operate ventilation systems 2 hours or more before and after school occupancy
• calibrate HVAC systems for maximum air flow and increased fresh air intake

For schools without mechanical ventilation, school boards “are expected to place standalone high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter units in all classrooms and learning environments.”

Music and gym

The Ministry says music programs will be permitted in areas with adequate ventilation, including singing and the use of wind instruments under the following guidelines:

• Use of wind instruments is permitted indoors within a cohort if a minimum distance of two metres or more can be maintained. As much distance as possible should be encouraged and use of large, well-ventilated spaces should be prioritized.

• Use of wind instruments is permitted outdoors in mixed cohorts with distancing encouraged.

• Singing is permitted indoors. Masking is encouraged but not required for singing indoors if a minimum distance of two metres can be maintained between cohorts and as much distancing as possible maintained within a cohort.

Physical education classes will resume, including the use of gyms, swimming pools and weights rooms. High and low-contact activities will be allowed under the following guidelines:

• High-contact activities are only permitted outdoors. Masking is not required.

• Low contact activities are permitted indoors. Masking is encouraged but not required indoors for low-contact physical activities if a minimum
distance of two metres can be maintained between cohorts and as much distancing as possible maintained within a cohort.

• School swimming pools are permitted, with physical distancing around the pool area encouraged to discourage mixed-cohort congregating.