Ontario schools back in business in September

By 
  • July 30, 2020

Ontario’s high school and elementary students will be back in school in September, with significant provincial investment in measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Education Stephen Lecce made the announcement today at a media conference at Father Leo J. Austin Catholic Secondary School in Whitby, Ont.

Public health measures in place will include mandatory masks for teaching staff and students in Grades 4 through 12 with exceptions for those with medical conditions. Children in kindergarten to Grade 3 will be encouraged to wear masks but will not be required.

Protocol will also include cohorting at all grade levels, which refers to grouping the same students together throughout the school day to minimize exposure across the school environment and to aid in contact tracing measures. 

Safety measures will also include expansion of testing in schools, frequent cleaning of school buses and additional health and safety training for teaching staff. The province is also investing $309 million to hire 500 new public health nurses to help in schools, an additional 900 custodians to enhance cleaning and provide supplies.

“With these measures in place our classrooms will be as safe as we can make them because when it comes down to it, our children belong in school,” said Ford. 

While all publicly funded elementary schools will fully re-open, Lecce says most secondary schools will reopen under an adapted model with limits to the size and interaction of cohorts. Groups of 15 students will alternate between attending class in person and online. Secondary schools with “lower risk profiles” will be able to return to class in-person five days a week. 

New money will be invested for masks and personal protective equipment for staff and cloth masks for students. In a breakdown of some of the investment, Lecce announced funding of over $75 million for cleaning supplies and school custodians, and health and safety training for all educators.

The public health nurses come at a cost of $50 million and they will support surveillance testing and treatment of students, enhanced screening and contact tracing. The province also announced a $10-million increase in investment for special education to hire more educational assistants and equipment, and additional $10 million in mental-health measures on top of a $10-million investment announced in June.  

“We acknowledge and appreciate the additional funding being provided to support school boards to assist with the myriad of challenges and issues associated in reopening schools. It will be crucially important for the Ministry of Education to work very closely with provincial associations and school boards to carefully monitor circumstances from the first day of school, so as to determine the need for additional financial support,” said Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association (OCSTA) president Patrick Daly. 

The funding, however, is not enough, according to the province’s teachers’ unions, including OECTA, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association. In a joint news release upon the provincial announcement, the unions said Ford and his government are “jeopardizing the safety of students, educators and all Ontarians by severely underfunding a safe return to school this September.”

The unions have called for a $3-billion investment to ensure a safe return to school.

“Educators want to be back with their students, but want to do safely,” said OECTA president Liz Stuart. “The Ford model does not provide for the safe physical distancing that is expected in the rest of the province and that health experts around the world have recommended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It also does not provide the necessary additional resources to support distance learning for those families who elect to keep their children home, or to support students in schools who have unique learning needs.”

In a document released in June, the Hospital for Sick Children emphasized the importance of school reopening in consideration of the risks of COVID-19 against the harm of school closure and the toll it’s taking on the physical and mental health and personal development of children.

"That's why we've worked with our public health experts, Ontario Health and the medical experts at Sick Kids to develop a plan that ensures students can return to the classroom five days a week in a way that protects the health and safety of our children, teachers and school staff," said Ford. 

The OCSTA will be consulting with member boards and carefully examining the information released and providing feedback to the government that is informed by knowledge of the school board and community needs.

“We know that in collaboration with employee groups and other partners, school boards will continue to place the health, safety and well-being of students at the centre of their decision making and reopening plans,” said Daly.
Classes are slated to resume Sept. 8. Students have not been in class since mid-March because of the pandemic and finished the school year with distance learning from home.

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