Actions Taken to Keep Schools Safe During Reopening
The delivery of instruction may vary based on whether a student is in elementary or secondary school:
Principles: The plan to resume in-class learning is based on the following key health, safety, and well-being principles:
- Providing a safe and healthy school environment for students, teachers and staff, and safeguarding the broader communities in which they live;
- Providing a consistently high-quality education for every student in Ontario;
- Addressing potential gaps in student learning, mental health and well-being, arising from the school closures in 2019-20; and
- Maintaining close communications with and respecting the opinions and authority of parents, and reducing barriers to returning to work.
Elementary schools (Kindergarten to Grade 8): All publicly funded elementary schools will be reopening province-wide, with in-class instruction five days a week. Elementary classes will be more easily cohorted due to the homeroom model that is used in elementary grades.
Secondary schools (Grade 9-12):Secondary schools in school boards designated by the province will open on an adapted model, with class cohorts of approximately 15 students, on alternating schedules with at least 50 per cent of in-class instructional days. The designation of these school boards is based on several factors that take into account the size of the school board, the number and size of the board's secondary schools, the size of secondary grade cohorts and whether the board is predominantly urban. This will allow for a staged approach to reopening secondary schools.
Secondary schools in non-designated school boards will be permitted to open with conventional delivery, with enhanced health and safety protocols.
All school boards will adopt timetabling methods that emphasize cohorting of students as much as possible, to limit the number of direct and indirect student-to-student contacts.
All parents will have the choice of whether or not their child will attend school in-person, and school boards will ensure remote learning is available for all students.
Through a 22-page document which provides specific, technical and paediatrician-informed direction to school boards, the government has unveiled a robust, prudent and world-leading return-to-school protocol for students, parents, and staff in all areas, including:
Masking: Medical masks will be mandatory for all staff in a school setting. Furthermore, cotton or reusable cloth masks (i.e. face coverings) will be required for students in Grades 4 to 12. For students in Kindergarten to Grade 3, the use of masks will be optional, and will be entirely at the discretion of parents. Exceptions to this policy — for both staff and students — will be permitted for individuals for whom using a mask conflicts with a pre-existing condition, such as asthma. These determinations will be made in consultation between school principals, parents, and school boards. When students are outside, such as during recess, the use of masks will not be required so long as physical distancing can be maintained.
Cohorting: The principle of cohorting is used to limit the number of interactions among students and staff, as well as facilitate an effective and efficient rapid-response contact tracing protocol. The government's reopening plan focuses on preserving and enforcing cohorts of students, regardless of whether a school is in conventional or adapted delivery. Students in elementary school will remain in a single cohort during the day, which is easily facilitated by the homeroom nature of instruction. In secondary school, cohorts will be preserved by boards employing timetabling strategies to cohort students, such as through a 'quadmester' model. At any given time, the size of a student's cohort will be limited to approximately 50 in elementary and 100 direct or indirect contacts in secondary schools, which for many students allows for significantly-reduced congregate exposure, and facilitates contact tracing.
Physical distancing: Physical distancing is a key strategy that can be used for limiting the transmission of COVID-19, especially in environments where there are no additional mitigation measures available or used. Physical distancing measures are being supplemented with other public health measures, such as self-screening, cohorting, hand hygiene, enhanced cleaning and masking. The government has unveiled a $30 million application-based fund, which boards can apply to for additional staffing that may be needed to support distancing.
Testing and public health nurses: Recognizing the critical importance of testing in identifying cases of COVID-19 and initiating contact tracing to reduce community transmission, the government will be supporting increased laboratory capacity to enable a robust testing strategy and move quickly in responding to COVID-19 cases. This strategy will be bolstered by the hiring of up to 500 additional nurses in public health units to support the education system.
Special education: The past several months have had considerable impacts on students in the province, and the government is providing additional supports to enable students a successful return to school. For students with a high-level of special education needs, the government is directing school boards to facilitate full-time in-school instruction, regardless of whether a secondary school begins the instructional year using an adapted model. The Ministry of Education will work with designated school boards to achieve this goal, and will review and approve requests by designated school boards to open small or specialized secondary schools or programs with full-time attendance. Additionally, the government is directing boards to consider the changing school environment and remote learning needs in reviewing and updating Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to best-serve students.
Mental health: In addition to doubling the mental health funding in the Ministry of Education, the government has also worked with School Mental Health Ontario and will provide school boards with a professional learning framework and toolkit to support the mental health of all students. This can be tailored at the board and school levels for different audiences. The professional learning will have a strong focus on building students' social-emotional learning skills so that they can respond to what they are facing in the COVID-19 outbreak, manage their stress and build positive relationships.Professional learning will be provided for system leaders, educators and mental health professionals to support the approach to school re-entry, as well as throughout the school year.
The government's extensive guidance focuses on keeping students and staff safe by directing key health and safety practices and protocols, including:
- Self-screening of students and staff before they enter school or a school bus;
- Adapted school environments to minimize the interaction of cohorts;
- Hand hygiene practices and education for students;
- Masking for Grades 4 to 12, where students have an awareness of the proper techniques and efficacy of using masks;
- Medical masks for teachers and staff, which are provided by the government through school boards;
- Cohorting to reduce transmissibility and allow effective contact tracing;
- Enhanced cleaning and disinfecting of school facilities and busses, with significant additional investment in staffing and supplies;
- Restrictions on visitors, to limit the number of individuals in a school setting and preserve cohorting; and
- Pre-registration to aid in controlled reopening and enable boards to plan for an effective and calculated reopening in September or earlier.