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Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, and Education Minister Stephen Lecce walk the hallway of Father Leo J Austin Catholic Secondary School in Whitby, Ont., before making the announcement regarding the government's plan to reopen schools in the fall, on July 30, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario schools will reopen this fall with no class-size limits for its youngest learners, a mix of in-class and remote learning at the secondary level, and the country’s only mandatory mask requirement for middle- and high-school students.

The government announced on Thursday that most of the province’s two million students will be in school full-time, similar to plans rolled out in other provinces, including British Columbia, Alberta and Nova Scotia. Manitoba released a similar plan on Thursday, where learning in classrooms will be full-time for students in kindergarten to Grade 8, with some remote learning for high-school students to maintain physical distancing and minimize the spread of coronavirus.

“Reopening schools is crucial to the social-emotional development of Ontario students,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Thursday. “It’s also crucial to allowing parents to return to work and to support Ontario’s economic recovery.”

The government said it is providing $309-million in funding to school boards for cleaning, public-health nurses and masks and personal protective equipment.

Ontario’s back-to-school plan does not limit class sizes in elementary schools, and instead restricts students to their class group for the entire day, including lunch and recess. In high school, however, students in 24 boards with relatively large enrolments would attend school every alternate day, in cohorts of 15. In smaller districts, where class sizes are typically lower, high-school students would attend full-time.

Families in Ontario have the option of remote learning at all levels.

Mr. Lecce said the plan to limit classes in high school and not elementary stems from public-health advice that the risk of transmission is greater among older students. Evidence suggests young children, particularly those under the age of 10, are less likely than teenagers and adults to spread the coronavirus. Some infectious disease experts have warned that transmission could be underestimated because children are less likely to be tested and may not have symptoms.

The province will also require students in Grades 4 to 12 to wear non-medical masks, with some exemptions in place. Children in kindergarten to Grade 3 will be encouraged to wear masks, but not required. Medical masks will be provided for teachers and other school staff, the government said.

No other province has required students to wear masks in classrooms. Only Nova Scotia said that high-school students and teachers will be required to wear masks in hallways and common areas when physical distancing is difficult, and all students would wear masks on buses.

The effectiveness of students wearing masks in a classroom setting has been the subject of discussion. There is a lack of evidence on the use of masks among children and youth, and while children have worn them to school in Asian countries, that’s not the case in several European jurisdictions.

Even Ontario’s pediatric hospitals, led by Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, could not reach a consensus on whether young children should wear masks when they return to school. In a school guidance document released earlier this week, the experts recommended the use of masks for high-school students and perhaps even middle-school, when physical distancing can’t be maintained. However, the report said that 61 per cent of the experts agreed that elementary students should not be required to wear masks unless they choose to do so. A “significant minority” supported the use of masks for younger students when physical distancing is not possible.

Teachers’ unions criticized the government’s back-to-school plan, saying it will be unsafe for students and educators.

Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said that restaurants and grocery stores have more physical-distancing restrictions than schools. He said that teachers are concerned that the government is not reducing elementary-school class sizes to allow for distancing, nor requiring youngsters to wear masks.

“Two-metre physical distancing and mask wearing have been required for indoor activities across the province. COVID-19 does not distinguish between a grocery store and a classroom, between a coffee shop or school hallways,” Mr. Hammond said, adding that children are more active, which will make distancing difficult.

“That’s why smaller classes and mask requirements for all students are necessary to ensure the safety and health of everyone in elementary schools,” Mr. Hammond said.

NDP education critic Marit Stiles said she was worried that many parents would not be comfortable with a plan that doesn’t limit class sizes, and would be faced with difficult choices in sending their children back to school.

“To me, this is just designed to fail,” she said.

Already, Ottawa mom Jess Whitley was rethinking her plan for the fall. She has two children, one in kindergarten and another entering Grade 2.

“I had in my mind … that this would be doable. It could be safe. It could be enjoyable for the kids, if we had fewer number of bodies in the classroom,” said Prof. Whitley, who is an associate professor in the University of Ottawa’s faculty of education.

She was concerned about her five-year-old being in a kindergarten class with more than 30 children and two adults. “I just have to take a step back and think about whether that is actually the best choice for her, the best choice for our family and all of our parents who are over 70,” she added.

She was also worried about how academically behind some children will be and perhaps, she said, it would have been easier for teachers to help smaller cohorts catch up. “I don’t think there’s any question, absolutely. I think that would have been an easier go,” she said.

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