New measures have been put in place to protect Ontario’s school children after their return to school.
Durham and Halton, and anyone outside the greater Toronto area, returned to in-person learning on February 8. Toronto and Peel Region will return to in-person learning on February16. Schools in the Eastern Ontario Health Unit, as well as those in the Ottawa area, returned on February 1. Community transmission of the Covid-19 virus is declining, confirmed Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Dr David Williams, the chief medical officer of health.
Dr. Williams and Minister Lecce explained that if there appears to be transmission within a group of students or a school after the return to in-person learning, students could be sent home until testing could occur. Administration and local health units could close a school if there is an outbreak, in order to allow for testing and tracing. These restrictions or closures would be handled on a case-by-case situation. The province maintains that all public health units will have access to testing, and that Ontario has the capacity to process 25,000 laboratory tests and another 25,000 on-site rapid tests each week, but they are still working to get to this rate.
Stephen Lecce confirmed that the province is accessing $340 million in funding from the federal government to help keep students, staff, and teachers at the schools safe. This money is intended to go directly to school boards to assist in buying personal protective equipment (PPE), increase and improve filtration and ventilation in schools, and to hire more cleaning staff.
Working through local health units, the province intends to provide asymptomatic testing for staff, students, and teachers. Masks are now mandatory for grades 1 to 3. Masking outdoors is required for all grades from 1 to 12 when the two-meter distancing is not possible. The province will provide 3.5 million cloth masks to schools to make sure students are able to be masked at all times. Screening tools have been updated for all students, staff, and teachers. The province wants to see schools actively discourage before or after school gatherings. Finally, the province is allowing individual boards to hire student teachers in their final year to help cover some of the absenteeism caused by the pandemic. The boards and schools will still have to draw upon any reserve of fully qualified teachers to act as substitute teachers before calling on student teachers, but the province is hoping that allowing the boards and schools to hire student teachers will provide more flexibility to respond to any shortage of teachers when they have to take time off due to health or isolation requirements.
The Ontario NDP education critic Marit Stiles is critical of the plan to return students to in-person learning, saying that the province has not spent the full amount allocated by the federal government to implement safety measures, that the work of increasing ventilation should have been done much earlier, and that school teachers and staff should be vaccinated with front-line workers.