Masks on, schools told for September as long-awaited provincial guidance unveiled

Back to school this fall for Ontario’s two million students isn’t quite back to normal, but there will be fewer pandemic restrictions than in the 2020-21 school year.

While masks are required — for students starting in Grade 1 in school — music programs and extracurricular sports and clubs are a go, as are interschool sports, says the province’s guidance to schools, which was released Tuesday afternoon.

Vaccines are encouraged, but not mandated.

Field and overnight trips are making a return, as are schoolwide assemblies and co-op education.

Elementary students will be cohorted in their classes, and high school students are not to take more than two courses at a time — so the dreaded quadmester option is here to stay.

Libraries, cafeterias and computer labs will reopen.

Physical distancing is encouraged, but no distance is recommended, with the exception of lunchtime where two metres must be maintained between cohorts in cafeterias and for some high-contact sports. Children do not require masks at recess or any outdoor breaks.

Hand hygiene measures will continue, as will deep cleaning of schools.

The province has previously announced funding for ventilation, and the province says schools will need HEPA filters in all classrooms without mechanical ventilation, and more news is expected on that front.

Boards have also been warned to ensure they can quickly switch to online learning should COVID cases increase and schools are shut down.

Ontario students spent the most time out of the classroom during the pandemic, with a Canada-wide high of 26 weeks since March 2020.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce had previously said the province’s goal is a full return to school for students, with sports and extracurriculars.

A recent report by pediatric experts said masking, cohorting and distancing could be dropped in areas with low COVID rates, but the province’s chief medical officer of health had said the September start-up would be cautious.

Lecce, in an earlier statement to the Star, said “our government is committed to getting students back to full-time, in-person learning this September. We know how critical this is to the mental health and well-being of students, which is why we are following the best medical advice and investing $ 1.6 billion so that we can continue to keep schools safe.”

He also said “Ontario’s plan will ensure students get back to class in a more normal learning environment — supported by extracurriculars, including clubs and sports.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Tuesday that “families are exhausted, kids are really struggling with their mental health and well-being, and teachers and education workers are burnt out. We need to make sure that when they return to school in September, it’s a healthy and successful return. If we prevent outbreaks and exposures, we prevent kids from having to be sent home again.”

The provincial guidance says high-contact sports are allowed outdoors only, but masks are not mandatory. Lower-contact activities are allowed indoors, and again no masks required if cohorts can stay apart two metres.

The Grade 10 literacy test, a requirement for graduation, is also waived for all students finishing high school in the 2021-2022 school year, and required volunteer hours are now 20, not 40.