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An empty classroom at Kensington Community School, in Toronto, on Sept. 1, 2020.

Carlos Osorio/The Canadian Press

Students in Ontario can opt to take all their classes online when the new school year begins in September, but the province’s Education Minister could not say Tuesday if a return to class to finish the current academic year will be possible.

Stephen Lecce said the announcement will help parents and students prepare for the 2021-2022 school year, and give boards time to plan for all contingencies.

As for the current school year, Mr. Lecce would only say that the advice of the province’s top doctor on classroom closures has not changed.

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“The chief medical officer of health continues to analyze the data and providing advice to government,” he said. “The Premier’s commitment is to not take a risk with your child, is to not compound the problem.”

Ontario closed its schools to in-person learning indefinitely in mid-April as COVID-19 daily case counts began to surge amid the third wave of the pandemic.

All schools are currently teaching students online as Ontario remains under a stay-at-home order.

While the province’s vaccine rollout has begun to ramp up in recent weeks, and case rates appear to be slowly decreasing, the province said the online option will be available for the entire 2021-2022 school year.

Mr. Lecce acknowledged that some parents may have concerns about sending a child back for in-person class this fall.

“That is a personal choice, and I don’t think government is best positioned to make it for parents,” he said. “What was important is that we provided that choice for this upcoming school year, and we provided more time to parents to make that choice, which is precisely what the announcement today does.”

The government said it will also keep measures like cohorting in place as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

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Ontario said in total it will increase funding to school boards by $561-million next year to help address continued pandemic-related costs.

The province will spend a total of $25.6-billion on the education system in 2021-2022 – an increase of 2.2 per cent over the previous year.

School boards will be allowed to access their reserves, as they did last year, to help address pandemic costs.

The province will also extend $1.6-billion in COVID-19 supports to boards, including millions to upgrade ventilation, support learning recovery and allow for flexible staffing.

The government said it will also continue funding for the purchase of personal protective equipment, COVID-19 testing and replacement of devices.

It cautioned, however, that boards should only budget for half of those resources during the first half of the year, and that the remaining funding depends on vaccine distribution and public health advice.

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Marit Stiles, education critic for the Opposition New Democrats, criticized the announcement for focusing on online learning rather than investments that would allow students to safely return to class, like smaller class sizes.

She said the announcement lacked clarity for families.

“We know that kids need safe classrooms, not permanent online learning,” Ms. Stiles said on Tuesday.

She said online learning has been “absolutely horrible,” with negative impacts on mental health and kids who lack high-speed internet and space at home.

The province reported 2,791 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and 25 more deaths linked to the virus.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said there are 931 new cases in Toronto, 653 in Peel Region and 275 in York Region. The data is based on over 33,700 tests.

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The Ministry of Health said that 2,167 people are hospitalized because of the novel coronavirus, with 886 in intensive care and 609 on ventilators.

Ontario said 88,871 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine were administered since Monday’s report, for a total of more than 5.4 million doses given in the province.

With files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter.

Health columnist André Picard outlines how kids could be back in classrooms in the fall, starting with getting all adults vaccinated by Canada Day, followed by a program of vaccinating children with an approved reduced dose ahead of school resuming in September. The Globe and Mail

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