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Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, said reopening schools is critical for the mental health and academic success of the province’s two million students.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s students will return to classrooms two days later than originally planned, and elementary schoolers will no longer be required to isolate for 10 days if they come in contact with classmates who have COVID-19, according to new provincial protocols.

Classes at primary and secondary schools were set to resume on Monday in much of Ontario, but the provincial government announced on Thursday that it would delay students’ return until Jan. 5. Several provinces, including British Columbia and Manitoba, have made week-long extensions to their school breaks, while Newfoundland and Labrador has said students will learn online next week. Alberta announced on Thursday that it was extending the holiday break until Jan. 10, and that it would distribute masks and rapid tests to staff and students.

The delays are intended to give schools more time to gird themselves against the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the virus.

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, said reopening schools is critical for the mental health and academic success of the province’s two million students.

“The investments that we’ve made in improved masking for educators, improved masking for children [and] improved ventilation make our schools very safe relative to any other areas of the community,” he said at a news conference on Thursday. “Our children have sacrificed a lot in the last 20 months and I think it’s a positive statement to ensure our schools stay open.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce were not present at the announcement.

Should COVID-19 vaccination be mandatory for students to attend school?

Alexandra Hilkene, a spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott, said children under age 12 who have come in contact with people infected with COVID-19 will be asked to monitor themselves for symptoms. Children who don’t become ill do not have to isolate at home, Ms. Hilkene said, regardless of whether they are vaccinated. Previously, any children under 12 who had been exposed to the virus were required to isolate, even if they were asymptomatic.

The Ontario government on Thursday also shortened the isolation period for children under 12 who develop COVID-19 symptoms. Now, they are required to stay home for five days, instead of 10.

The new policy means that, unlike in the past, entire classes won’t have to switch to virtual learning for 10 days whenever one of their students tests positive.

The government didn’t shorten the isolation period only for schoolchildren. The five-day rule also applies to people of any age who test positive for the virus and are fully vaccinated.

Dr. Moore said the government will be providing N95 masks to staff in schools and daycares, and will be deploying 3,000 HEPA filter units in addition to the 70,000 already in schools. The government said only low-contact indoor sports and safe extracurricular activities would be permitted in schools in January.

Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said the delayed return to school would not provide enough time to implement new safety measures. “After a long list of Ford government failures, do we believe N95s and HEPA filters will be in place by January 5? No,” she said. “If we need a few more days to implement additional layers of protection, let’s work together. This is important.”

Karen Littlewood, head of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, also said the delay is not long enough. She added that she is confused by the government’s decision to reduce the isolation period for children under 12.

“Schools are going to open Wednesday and close on Thursday. This is probably the most confusing and disappointing announcement. And not a single politician to respond to questions,” she said.

The provincial government also said it would place new restrictions on access to publicly funded polymerase chain reaction (or PCR) COVID-19 tests, in order to conserve testing resources. Symptomatic elementary and high-school students and education staff will have access to take-home PCR tests through their schools.

Doctors, parents and educators are increasingly divided over the prospect of keeping schools open as the virus spreads more rapidly than it has in the past. The challenge facing officials is balancing the risk of COVID-19, which is often relatively mild in children, and the damage caused by missing in-school time.

Ontario parent Amy McQuaid-England said many families are nervous about sending their children back into classrooms as COVID-19 cases rise. She is homeschooling her daughter because she doesn’t feel the school environment is safe, and because her daughter was not thriving in the virtual classroom.

She said many parents, mothers especially, have had to take on childcare duties or leave their jobs because of the constant disruptions in the province’s public education system.

“It’s an impossible situation for parents to be in,” she said. “It’s going to be a scary thing when all those kids go back to school with such a contagious variant.”

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