It is not expected that Ontario schools will require physical distancing, mask mandates and classroom cohorts as part of their health and safety measures this fall, according to a new report from the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.
The school guidance document, released Thursday and authored by doctors at Ontario pediatric facilities, says more permanent measures, such as hand hygiene, proper ventilation and strongly encouraging routine childhood immunizations, should be key features of health and safety plans in schools, irrespective of the pandemic.
However, “temporary” measures that include mask mandates should be evaluated based on the rate of infection in the broader community, the report says.
“With broad uptake of COVID-19 vaccines and increasing natural immunity and the significant reduction in disease severity they have afforded, it is anticipated that these measures will not be required at the start of the 2022-2023 school year.”
Many families and educators are hopeful for a more normal school year after more than two years of disruptions. Ontario kept schools closed to in-person learning more than any other province during waves of COVID-19.
Upton Allen, co-chair at the science advisory table and head of infectious diseases at the Hospital for Sick Children, said the “situational-dependent” temporary measures can be used to keep schools open during waves of the virus. He said that it’s important to recognize that beyond learning, schools also provide social, emotional and mental supports for students.
The report found masks and other temporary measures should be considered if there are major outbreaks at the school level, for example, or provincial health-system capacity constraints.
“Implementation of these temporary measures in schools should not be done in isolation of community measures. In particular, mask mandates should align with community guidance for indoor spaces,” the report states.
Nisha Thampi, a pediatric infectious-disease physician at CHEO in Ottawa and one of the authors on the guidance document, said “there was unanimity in keeping schools open.” She said that masks and physical distancing can be added layers of protection that are brought in during infection surges. They should be implemented in the community, as well.
“When you’re introducing school-based measures, they have to be reflected in community-based measures,” Dr. Thampi said.
Mask mandates have been divisive. Ontario was the first jurisdiction in the country to require masks in schools when COVID-19 hit, and public-health officials have mandated its use as one of the key strategies to keep classrooms open. Some families have challenged it.
An earlier review from Public Health Ontario found that schools with mask mandates were associated with lower transmission rates of COVID-19, although it was difficult to prove the extent to which the face coverings contributed. Schools with mask policies also had other health and safety measures in place, including ventilation upgrades.
The authors of the science table report could not reach a consensus on if and when to reintroduce mandatory masking. The report said that wearing masks is “likely the easiest … measure to implement if required to support ongoing school operations.”
In the absence of a mask mandate, choice should be respected, the report states.
The report also says that among younger children, mask mandates and cohorting should be prioritized over physical distancing if temporary measures are introduced. That’s because social interaction is necessary for child development. Meanwhile, masks and physical distancing are preferred among older students because cohorting them by their class would limit extracurricular activities.
In an e-mail statement on Thursday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the Ontario government is “focused on providing students with a positive, safe, and normal school experience.” He said HEPA filters have been distributed to classrooms and the school system will have access to rapid antigen tests.
The government has started negotiations with all major education unions. Contracts expire at the end of this month, and it is widely expected to be a challenging round of bargaining.