Students in Ontario will begin returning to the classroom in person today for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The province shuttered all schools on March 13 after cases of coronavirus disease began to rise.
This fall, boards will offer a mix of in-person classes and online learning for students who opt to stay home.
Some boards in different parts of the province will reopen schools today, while others will begin to restart over the next two weeks.
Last month, Education Minister Stephen Lecce gave boards permission to stagger school reopenings if they required more time to put pandemic safety protocols in place.
For instance, high school students will start orientation at the Peel District School Board today, with elementary students beginning Wednesday, while Toronto District School Board students will not begin returning to class until Sept. 15.
In Ottawa, where some students returned to class earlier this month, health officials say people at five French-language Catholic schools — four elementary and one high school — have tested positive for COVID-19.
“This virus was not picked up in the school, these are situations where the infection arose in the community,” Ottawa’s medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, told CBC radio Tuesday morning.
Ottawa Public Health is reaching out to everyone who was in close contact with those infected and telling them to self-isolate and get tested, she said.
“In most of the cases, we couldn’t determine that someone had stayed in their seat (in class) the whole time and so others were just within two metres,” Etches said.
“So we have notified, in most instances, the whole class that everyone in the class needs to stay home from school for the next two weeks.”
Everyone who shared a school bus with the positive cases is also considered a close contact at this point, since it’s unclear whether students remained in their assigned seats, she said.
Another Ottawa school board stressed the need to follow health guidelines as it prepared to open its doors to some students Tuesday.
In an email to parents and families, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board said one cohort of Grade 9 students will attend orientation Tuesday, with all students gradually returning over the next two weeks.
“The start of the school year is always an exciting time. This year, there is a mix of excitement and nervousness as we reopen schools for the first time in months,” Camille Williams-Taylor, the board’s director of education, wrote in the email.
Premier Doug Ford’s government has been under increasing pressure over its back-to-school plan, which has changed several times in the lead-up to reopening.
Lecce says the province’s plan puts safety first and the government will move quickly to address outbreaks in Ontario’s schools.
He said he understands students, parents and teachers are concerned about the reopening.
“I think all citizens and all parents around the world on the eve of students going back face that angst in their heart,” Lecce said in an interview. “But if we continue to follow public health advice … I do believe that students can return to a safe and positive environment.”
The government recently released new guidance on how to deal with potential COVID-19 outbreaks in schools.
It emphasizes prevention and at-home screening, while teachers and principals will be asked to isolate any child that develops symptoms at school.
Public health officials will be given discretion to send entire cohorts of students home from school, or potentially close schools, if they feel that is the best way to manage an outbreak.
School boards, teachers’ unions and some parents have called on the government to mandate smaller class sizes to ensure physical distancing is possible in the classroom — and provide funding to make it happen.
Ontario’s four major teachers’ unions have appealed to the province’s labour board alleging the school reopening plan violates workplace safety laws.
NDP education critic Marit Stiles said as schools begin to reopen on Tuesday, she will be watching how students and teachers are able to physically distance in class.
Stiles said despite the pressure to cut elementary class sizes, the government has pushed ahead with its strategy.
“I think we’ve all been hoping that the government would get the message that the parents have been shouting pretty loudly,” she said. “I think the government really believes that they can lay the blame at the feet of the education workers and the boards and shrug their shoulders.”
© The Canadian Press