National Newswatch

TORONTO — Ontario students returning to schools next month will be able to play on sports teams, use instruments in music class, go on field trips and ditch masks outdoors, even if distance can't be maintained.

The government released its back-to-school plan Tuesday, which includes extracurricular activities resuming, relaxed rules on using shared spaces like libraries and cafeterias, and continued to require masks indoors for students in Grades 1 and up.

Students will be attending in person for full days, five days a week - unless they have opted for remote learning - and high school students will have timetables with no more than two courses at a time. 

The plan warns school boards to be prepared for a potential closure, but Ontario's chief medical officer of health said he doesn't believe that will happen.

"I really can't envision or see any closure of any schools in Ontario - or colleges or universities - we must maintain them open going forward," Dr. Kieran Moore said.

He suggested dealing with COVID-19 in schools will eventually be akin to the flu.

"I think we have to normalize COVID-19 for schools and have an approach that's prudent, that's cautious, but that realizes yep, we're going to have a rise in cases, but we're going to adhere to the best practices to minimize the spread and keep our communities safe," Moore said.

Ontario had the longest interruption to in-person classes in Canada.

Alex Munter, president and CEO of children's hospital CHEO, said that last year school closures were used as a way to control the pandemic, and a concerted effort needs to be made to protect the new academic year.

"I think we will discover, as children go back to school ... that we will be dealing with significant education and developmental impacts of the school closures," he said.

"We’re already seeing the impacts in terms of mental health and emotional well-being. The goal of keeping schools open really needs to be the central preoccupation of government and of all of our communities."

Education Minister Stephen Lecce will not be available to answer questions about the plan until Wednesday, when he is set to announce $25 million more in ventilation funding for standalone HEPA units. The government previously announced more than $500 million in ventilation improvements are underway.

Schools with mechanical ventilation are expected to use the highest-grade filters possible and turn their systems on at least two hours before school starts, and schools without are expected to have standalone HEPA filter units in all classrooms.

The Ontario Public School Boards' Association applauded the plan but said the government must ensure boards are fully funded for their extra ventilation, personal protective equipment and cleaning costs.

The plan places an emphasis on outdoor activities, such as allowing kids to play during recess with friends from other classes – with distancing encouraged but not required. It also allows shared materials again, such as computers, gym equipment, and toys in kindergarten.

Students can sing and play instruments, including wind instruments, in areas with adequate ventilation. Indoors, masks are encouraged but not required for singing if there is distancing, and two metres should also be maintained inside when playing wind instruments within a cohort. Outside, different cohorts can play music together – in jazz band, for example – with distancing encouraged.

For sports, high-contact activities can be played outdoors. Low-contact sports can be played inside if cohorts are distanced from each other, with masking encouraged but not required. Pools will be allowed to be used, with distancing on the deck.

Assemblies can resume, subject to public health rules on indoor gathering limits, and visitors will be allowed into schools again. 

Protocols may be rolled back over time, dependent on vaccination rates, but the government isn't making shots mandatory for staff or students.

Dr. Anna Banerji, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said the plan looked "reasonable" but she would have liked to see more guidance on how schools should handle COVID-19 exposures.

"Last week they told us that there's going to be a different way that vaccinated kids and unvaccinated kids are treated, and that the unvaccinated kids will have to be off during the incubation period … but none of that is in this plan," she said.

Banerji also said the province should not be loosening restrictions too much for young students who can't be vaccinated yet. COVID-19 vaccines are not yet approved in Canada for those under the age of 12.

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario said teachers believe in-person learning is the best instruction model, but the union doesn't believe the plan accomplishes that safely. President Sam Hammond called on the government to lower class sizes, mandate masking for all students including those in kindergarten, maintain existing precautions in gym class, and keep isolation rules for people with symptoms.

Schools will mostly be relying on families to self-screen for symptoms of COVID-19 at home, but may have to do on-site confirmation of screening when transmission might be higher, such as after a holiday. 

The rules on when students have to stay home haven't been updated, but Moore signalled they will likely change.

"We did a lot of testing for very mild symptoms like runny nose and found we didn't get a lot of positives at a population level, so we've narrowed down the symptom list to those that are very specific to COVID-19," he said.

That list includes fever, cough, increasing shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell and in children, vomiting and diarrhea.

The NDP said it was disappointed there was no mention of smaller class sizes or ways to increase the youth vaccination rate.

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said the plan should have included mandatory vaccinations for front-line education workers.

Ontario reported 164 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday and one death. 

The latest provincial data show 99.5 per cent of all COVID-19 ICU admissions from mid-June to mid-July were in unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people, and nearly 96 per cent of related deaths were in the same group.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2021.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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