Ontario releases guidance for back to school

Students wearing face masks in the classroom. (© Can Stock Photo / halfpoint)

Students in Ontario going back to class in September will see the return of masks, cohorting, and social distancing. However, music, sports, school assemblies, and other school activities will also return.

The Ontario government released its much-anticipated health, safety, and operational guidance for schools on Tuesday.

The Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said he cannot envision any school closures this school year however, guidance on managing COVID-19 cases within schools was not released.

“I really don’t see our schools closing going into the fall and winter and spring,” said Dr. Moore. “We will do our utmost to keep our schools open for all students and families. That will take a multi-faceted approach of masking, hand hygiene, distancing, screening on a daily basis, testing and case and contact management and improvements in ventilation.”

Masks will be mandatory for all students indoors in Grades 1 to 12 but they will not be required outdoors. Kindergarten students will be encouraged to wear a mask but it will not be mandatory.

Dr. Moore indicated where communities have high vaccination rates, the masking requirement could be removed eventually.

“We’ll start off cautiously if they really don’t see community activity, so it’s below or around 10 per 100,000 cases per week the risk in the school setting would be minimal and they could together with their school boards, feedback from parents, teachers and children, make a decision to not have mandatory masking in that environment,” said Dr. Moore.

Elementary students should expect to return to class five days a week. While distancing is being encouraged, the document does not stipulate maximum class sizes.

“The principle that we provided to the Ministry of Education was distance as best you can and minimize the number of contacts each student has within a school setting,” said Moore.

Students in different cohorts will be allowed to interact outside or in common spaces indoors while wearing masks.

Secondary students will only have two classes at a time. However, school boards have been given the option to implement a modified semester approach with an alternating class schedule offering only two classes per week.

Staff and students will still be required to self-screen every day before attending school. But, Dr. Moore said there will be fewer requirements for testing.

“We’ve narrowed down the symptom list to those that are very specific to COVID-19 for children and adults. So fever, cough, increasing shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell,” said Dr. Moore. “So the symptom list is smaller so the requirement for testing should be fewer and hopefully the percentage of tests coming back positive would be higher.”

The ministry is also investigating other modes of testing which would be less intrusive for children.

Music programs that use singing and wind instruments will be permitted, but the use of wind instruments indoors will only be permitted within a cohort. The use of wind instruments is permitted outdoors in mixed cohorts with distancing encouraged.

After-school programs, clubs, sports teams, extra-curricular activities and bands (without wind instruments) will all be allowed while maintaining physical distancing.

Inter-school sports activities will also be allowed. High-contact activities will only be allowed outdoors while low-contact activities can be done indoors. Masking is encouraged but not required for low-contact physical activities.