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Thursday, July 30, 2020

The back-to-school plan in Ontario includes face masks for students

Ontario students are going back to school this September, and now we know exactly what it's going to look like.

Parents, teachers and students alike have been apprehensively awaiting an update from the province about the process for reopening schools, which have been shut down since March due to the health crisis.

Premier Doug Ford and his team revealed in the spring that in-person classes wouldn't be resuming until September, and on Thursday held a special press conference to announce the details of their new plan for how back to school will work in Ontario come fall.

Though some are worried that classrooms could end up serving as Petri dishes for COVID-19, Doug Ford reiterated the importance of getting our education system back to something resembling normal after months of online-only learning.

"We know isolation has been extremely hard on kids, not being able to see or play with their friends, and we also know that our children need the benefit, guidance and routine of in-class instruction with their teachers," Ford told reporters, adding that the adapted mode of learning amid the pandemic has been hard on the mental health of many, especially those students with special needs.

"We need to weigh risks of COVID-19 against the harm of school closures."

The province has consulted with its health team, various public health experts, Ontario Health and staff from Sick Kids Hospital — which just released its own guide for reopening schools — and has shared its list of what will be different next academic year.

For starters, Ford confirmed that all public elementary students will be back in classrooms five days a week for five hours per day (with lunch and breaks) starting Sept. 8, and daycares will return to full capacity Sept. 1.

High school kids — which experts say may be more at-risk for catching and having stronger reactions to the virus — will also be returning, though institutions with a greater potential for outbreaks will employ a cohort model that will see groups of 15 students alternate between online and in-person classes throughout the week to reduce contact.

Face coverings will be mandatory for students in grades four through 12 (save for those with health issues that prevent them from wearing a mask), to be complemented with physical distancing measures of at least one metre between everyone on school premises.

All staff will be provided special health and safety training, as well as PPE, while additional staff will be hired provincewide, including 900 custodians to help ramp up sanitization measures and 500 new public health nurses to serve on the ground in academic settings.

Screening of students and staff will also be implemented, along with targeted testing programs among older kids. Things like assemblies, field trips, group lunch breaks and sports programming will be limited, while school busses will be disinfected more regularly and students will maintain assigned seats.

More than $300 million in "targeted rapid response investments" will help cover these costs, as well as the costs of required supplies like masks, with the overall public education budget for this coming year totalling roughly $735 million more than last.

These funds will also be invested in greater mental health and special ed supports to help those who have struggled particularly hard in the past few months.

"We cannot and will not allow students to return to school without the necessary support and resources to enable them to comfortably return and feel safe from the start," Education Minister Stephen Lecce said at the presser today.

Lecce assured naysayers that experts agree "reopening schools is crucial to the social and emotional development of Ontario's students, and is also crucial to allowing parents to return to work and supporting Ontario's economic recovery."

Though the province is pushing for a more normal version of schooling, parents will continue to be able to choose if they want to keep their child at home for remote-only learning, which teachers must continue to provide.

With COVID-19 numbers trendng downward across the province as things continue to open up, Ford added that classrooms will be "as safe as we can make them," and that "when it comes down to it our children belong in school."

Health officials have also indicated that the situation will be monitored closely and if in-person learning appears to be unsafe in any way, schools will revert back to "alternative options," as seen earlier in the pandemic.

by Becky Robertson via blogTO

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