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Ontario Premier Doug Ford, right, and Education Minister Stephen Lecce get ready to make an announcement on July 30, 2020, regarding the government's plan for a reopening schools last fall.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

In the Ford government’s defence – we’ve all been there, right?

It’s the eve of a deadline for a major project, and you realize you’ve squandered the last few weeks binging Netflix shows or, say, hosting cash-for-access fundraisers you said were loathsome back when the other guys were organizing them. Panic sets in: Can I ask for an extension? No, this is the extension; you promised to deliver your plans last month. Can I fake my own death? Unwise; eventually you will have to emerge for vital supplies.

You know what you have to do. You dig through an old hard drive to find a suitably malleable document – an old essay on Chinua Achebe’s use of allegory, or a paper on melting Canadian permafrost, or the Ontario back-to-school plan from August, 2020 – and change names, small details and most importantly, the date at the top. Then you submit the revised paper as a brand-new document: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s use of allegory. The melting of the Kebnekaise glacier. Ontario’s 2021 back-to-school plan.

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Unveiled on Tuesday, Ontario’s plan for in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year is remarkably similar to the one announced last summer. Some restrictions have been removed – students no longer have to remain in their cohorts during outdoor activities, and extracurricular activities have resumed, for example – but most everything else could pass for the plan from last August. There is little that reflects how our understanding of COVID-19 transmission has evolved and how vaccination has changed the nature of the pandemic.

Masks and indoor cohorts are sticking around for the upcoming school year. But there is no information on outbreaks or thresholds beyond which schools will have to shut down in-person learning. Nothing about deploying rapid tests for in-home screening, as authorities have been doing successfully for months in the U.K.. No guidelines on how rules will compare for vaccinated versus unvaccinated students, which is a notable omission since just a few days earlier, Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore said the plan would include different isolation requirements for students who are close contacts of confirmed cases based on vaccination status. There is no obligation that students or staff be vaccinated to attend school (though vaccination requirements remain for illnesses such as measles and whooping cough) and no mention of reduced class sizes.

Back in August, 2020, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced a $50-million investment to improve ventilation in Ontario’s schools. A year later, Mr. Lecce has again announced a wad of cash – $25-million this time – to further improve ventilation. Schools with mechanical ventilation systems are supposed to change their filters more frequently, and those without are expected to have stand-alone HEPA filter units in all classrooms. But there are no guidelines about how the efficacy of schools’ ventilation systems will be monitored.

In Scotland, where students and teachers are offered rapid tests twice a week, all schools and daycares must have access to carbon dioxide monitors to regularly assess airflow in shared spaces. In Ontario, the plan is to provide cash and hope that the right equipment is purchased, installed and working properly in time for the first day of class.

By September, Ontario’s schools will be one of the last places in the province where hundreds of unvaccinated individuals will congregate daily for hours in confined spaces. That will be particularly true of elementary schools, where most students are too young to receive COVID-19 vaccines. For that reason, and because Ontario students have already spent the most time out of the classroom of all Canadian youth over the course of the pandemic, one would think the Ford government would throw absolutely everything in its arsenal at this last vulnerable space: a comprehensive rapid testing program, ventilation overhauls with monitoring, windows that actually open in all classrooms, vaccination requirements for teachers and older students, and so forth. Instead, it seems to have merely recycled last year’s plan, tweaked a few details and added in some questionable new permissions.

This school year, for example, unmasked indoor singing is now allowed as long as “a minimum distance of two metres can be maintained between cohorts and as much distancing as possible maintained within a cohort,” as if we’ve learned nothing about aerosol transmission over the past year, and as if there haven’t been numerous studies on COVID-19 and this very topic.

Ontario’s back-to-school plan – the off-paper one, at least – seems to be to hope and pray that vaccines keep community transmission low enough to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in schools. Vaccines did bail the province out of its problems with other congregate spaces; they were the only thing that spared Ontario’s long-term care homes from suffering a deadly third wave after the government failed to implement its promised reforms, and vaccines quieted the spate of outbreaks in factories after the province largely declined to intervene. But that was before the Delta variant took hold in Canada, and in those cases, the people actually inside the congregate spaces were able to themselves get vaccinated.

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After a tumultuous couple of semesters, the province owes kids and parents a plan that includes every measure possible to try to give students an uninterrupted school year. Instead, the province merely raided an old hard drive and turned in warmed-over homework.

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