Ontario students could see different back-to-school approaches this fall, depending on where they live and how prevalent COVID-19 is in their area.
Much like a regional approach to reopening the province, the government said on Friday that for school boards where the risk is lower, students will move from a plan that blends in-class instruction with remote learning to one where they can be in school full-time with public-health measures in place.
“I know kids are eager to get back into the classroom and parents are looking for guidance, for the plans, this fall,” Premier Doug Ford said. “But it must be done safely and it must be done under the right conditions.”
School boards are being asked to prepare for three scenarios: remote learning; a full return to in-class learning with public-health measures; and a hybrid-learning model. The last option would see a maximum of 15 students in a classroom every alternate day or alternate week.
But Mr. Ford stressed that parents would have the option of having their children learn at home or send them back to class. “The fact is this virus remains a threat and the health and safety of our children will always remain top of mind,” he said.
Students in Ontario have been learning at home since March break. Schools in some parts of the country, including British Columbia and Quebec, started reopening their doors in the past few weeks, but attendance has been optional.
In recent days, several provinces have released cautious plans on the September reopening of schools. That’s because the impact of COVID-19 on children is unclear. Children tend not to get very ill, but public-health officials are still trying to understand how children affect transmission.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said that under the hybrid plan, physical distancing would be encouraged, but there would also be cohorting among smaller groups. There would be a maximum of 15 students in a classroom, although it is unclear how that would work in a high-school setting where students move between classrooms for subjects.
“We know kids need to be in class. We’ve heard this loud and clear from the Hospital for Sick Children and other medical leaders. The mental-health impacts are real on our kids,” Mr. Lecce said.
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said districts will be working through the summer to develop plans for the reopening of schools, and figure out how to deal with various challenges, including busing. Still, Ms. Abraham said she was pleased that the government acknowledged a regional approach to schools reopening.
“It’s reassuring to see that the reopening plan includes room for local and regional flexibility, as some schools or school boards may be able to return to full capacity sooner than others,” Ms. Abraham said.
The government has received advice and recommendations from various education groups, teachers’ unions, as well as medical professionals on how to reopen elementary and high schools.
An expert group from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children released its recommendations to the government this week and advised it to reopen schools. The group said that while physical distancing should be adhered to inside – desks should be separated and assemblies banned – children should be allowed to play together outside. The report said that playing and socializing is central to child development and well-being.
The report, however, has come under scrutiny from educators and epidemiologists.
Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said that while she agreed that the lockdown has had an impact on children’s mental health, reopening schools is not that simple. Plans have to consider that adults are in school buildings as well, and children would be returning home to families with varied health conditions, she said.
“Everybody wants kids to go back to school. The question is how do you do it in a way that’s sustainable,” she said. “I think we can predict that if you don’t put measures in place at the get-go, then we’re going to have issues of outbreaks in schools and we’re going to have to shut them down.”
She said that the summer months could be used to develop creative solutions: “How do we set ourselves up for success?”
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