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Ontario releases back-to-school plan thin on managing COVID-19 cases, outbreaks

Students, staff required to mask indoors but not to be vaccinated, says document released Tuesday

Dr Kieran Moore.

Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, provides his COVID-19 update on Aug. 3, 2021

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Chris Young

RCI

Ontario students will return to the classroom full-time in September with remote learning continuing to be an option, the province confirmed in its official back-to-school strategy — but the plan is thin on details about how schools will manage COVID-19 cases and outbreaks.

Students and staff will be required to wear masks in indoor settings with exceptions for things like meal breaks and low-contact physical activities, and everyone will be required to perform a self-screening before coming into school facilities. 

But the 29-page document released Tuesday contains no protocols on managing COVID-19 outbreaks, nor does it set a threshold for when schools or classrooms should be shut down. The plan also doesn't indicate what level of transmission in the surrounding community might affect a school's operations.

More than 4,800 Ontario schools had to close due to COVID-19 cases at some point from September to June, with 11,462 students contracting the virus, provincial data shows. 

To be prepared for a potential closure, school boards should have plans in place so they can move to remote learning quickly to ensure continuity of learning for students, the plan says. 

You can read Ontario's back-to-school plan in full at the bottom of this story.

For secondary students, school boards have been instructed to implement timetables with no more than two courses at a time for high school students in the fall semester in order to preserve the option of reverting to more restrictive measures, if needed.

Music programs will be allowed in areas with good ventilation, with singing and wind instruments permitted in cohorted groups with distancing of at least two metres. 

The last page of the plan, entitled Management of COVID-19 in schools, states: This section is forthcoming, adding it will build on the guidance provided during the 2020-21 school year. 

Key takeaways from Ontario's back-to-school plan:

  • Staff and teachers will not be required to take COVID-19 vaccines.

  • Students from Grade 1 to 12 are required to wear masks indoors (with exceptions such as low-contact physical activity and during eating).

  • Staff and students must screen themselves everyday using the tool provided by the province, although in some cases schools may be directed to do enhanced screening.

  • Anyone experiencing symptoms per the provincial screening tool should not attend school and potentially get tested or seek medical attention.

  • School boards are expected to have all ventilation systems inspected and in good condition before the start of school year. 

  • School boards without mechanical ventilation (those that rely on windows to bring in fresh air) are expected to place standalone high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter units in all classrooms.

Earlier in the day, the Ontario NDP called on the province to require education workers who are not fully vaccinated to take rapid COVID-19 tests when students head back to school in the fall. 

Rapid tests, which Ford dubbed gamechangers back in February, were deployed in congregate care, long-term care homes and various essential workplaces. However the back to school-plan makes no mention of rapid tests.

See the province's back-school-plan for yourself here:

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