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After being dropped off by school bus, grade nine students gather outside Patrick Fogarty High School in Orillia, Ont. on Sept 10 2020.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario’s high-school students will return to a regular semester system for the winter term, amid concerns about pupil engagement and teacher burnout under the current model. Since the last academic year, schools have been following revised schedules designed to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said on Thursday that if school boards have local public-health approval, they could change back before the February term begins.

“With the full support of the Chief Medical Officer of Health and recognizing the high rates of immunization amongst youth in our secondary schools, I am proud to announce that secondary schools will resume a regular timetable model of four courses a day starting in Term 2,” Mr. Lecce said at a news conference.

The government also announced an expansion of COVID-19 testing in pharmacies and schools. In mid-December, it will distribute 11 million take-home rapid test kits – five for each student – for use over the winter holidays to monitor the spread of the virus.

About 80 per cent of 12- to 17-year-olds have received both doses of the vaccine, according to Ontario government data.

School boards, educators and students had urged the province to move away from “modified semesters,” where students are assigned four courses in the term but take two courses a day for a week and then switch to the other two courses for the following week. Each class lasts 2.5 hours. Some school boards adopted the quadmester model, where classes are just as long, and students take two subjects at a time each quad. In a regular semester, students take four courses a day.

The government had informed school boards at the start of the academic year that these models were safest for high-school students because it limited the number of contacts.

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, is pleased the government has listened to educators and students. Teachers are exhausted in the current system, she said, because they have no time to prepare for classes. And teenagers have difficulty concentrating on a subject for such a long stretch of time, she said, adding that they need school to feel somewhat normal for their mental health and well-being.

“We have been advocating for this for months, and for our members it’s a sign of the start of a return to normal,” Ms. Littlewood said. “We know we’re not going back right away to life as it was in March of 2020 quite yet, but this gives great hope.”

Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said her organization has also been advocating for a return to the regular semester model.

Moving to a four-course-a-day model “will improve student engagement and achievement, while allowing educators to create more effective teaching and learning environments,” she said.

The government also said on Thursday that elementary schools would only be permitted to play host to virtual schoolwide assemblies starting in January, or earlier if required by local public-health units. The government’s guidance to school boards in the fall allowed for in-person assemblies, although several boards, including the Toronto District School Board, said assemblies would only be allowed if they were virtual or outdoors.