THUNDER BAY - Students in the northwest will be returning to the classroom in September, but there will be some significant changes, including mandatory masks for all students in Grades 4 to 12.
The provincial government released its plan for reopening public schools in September during its daily media briefing on Thursday.
“We need to weigh the risks of COVID-19 against the harm of school closures,” said Premier Doug Ford. “We are going to get our kids back to school in a way that looks and feels as much as it used to.”
In September, all public elementary schools will be open five days a week, while designated secondary school boards will use a part-time model where students will be in the classroom on alternating days, using both in-class and online teaching methods.
Secondary schools will also have cohorts of no more than 15 students in a class. Students in elementary schools will remain in a single cohort with the same teacher throughout the day.
Non-designated secondary school boards will be permitted to reopen classrooms to allow for daily attendance of students. Superior North Catholic, Superior-Greenstone, Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board, Le Conseil scolaire de district catholique des Aurores boréales, Keewatin-Patricia, Kenora Catholic, Lakehead District School Board, and Rainy River District School Boards are all classified as non-designated.
Cloth face coverings will also be mandatory for all students between Grades 4 and 12.
“We are in a world now where we have COVID-19,” said Dr. Barbara Yaffe, associate chief medical officer of health.
“It’s not going away at this point. So we need to continue to be vigilant. One of the basic measures we are recommending is masking. Anytime you cannot be sure you can maintain physical distance. In the school setting this is something we are recommending as well.”
Face coverings are not mandatory for students in Kindergarten through Grade 3, but it is still strongly encouraged that they wear one. But Yaffe said there are challenges, which is why it is not mandatory.
“Younger children probably won't be able to keep a mask on,” she said. “It’s encouraged. It’s entirely up to the parent and the individual child. We will continue to evaluate and monitor how it goes.”
Parents who are still concerned about the possibility of outbreaks or children bringing the infection home can choose to keep their children out of school.
“We will continue to respect the authority and choice of parents and the choice to enroll their children into in school instruction,” said Minister of Education Stephen Lecce.
Teachers who are concerned about the possibility of contracting COVID-19 can also choose to remain out of the classroom, but there is still an obligation to continue to teach.
“We appreciate that for some educators, based on age or pre-existing medical conditions, not be in a setting with other students or staff,” Lecce said.
“We will accept that decision and accept collective agreements. For those educators that cannot be educating or teaching in a classroom they can teach online. We respect and ensure their job is protected, they must therefore still teach.”
“They are going to have to make that decision,” Ford added. “I really wish as many as possible, if not all, will show up to the classroom. They’ve done an incredible job and we really need them.”
The province is also investing more than $300 million into the education sector to hire 500 public-health nurses to assist with monitoring potential outbreaks and screening, as well as 1,300 custodial staff to assist with enhanced cleaning of schools and purchasing personal protective equipment for teachers and staff.
The reopening plan was developed based on input from top doctors and scientists in the province, who also recognize the health impacts of keeping students out of the classroom.
“We’ve heard loud and clear from medical experts that COVID-19 has had profound mental impacts on our students,” Lecce said.
But it will also be up to parents to ensure that their children, even if exhibiting only minor symptoms associated with COVID-19, keep them home.
“We are hoping parents will take this very seriously,” Yaffe said. “It is for the health of their own child and the staff and teachers at the school. If we let children go to school when they are ill that can easily spread the infection. We don’t want an outbreak in the schools and I think parents understand that.”
Childcare centres across the province will also be permitted to open at full capacity on Sept. 1 with strict public health guidelines in place, such as staff being required to wear masks, enhanced cleaning, and screening of children entering the facilities.