Over 100,000 students from several regions across southern Ontario returned to school on Monday for the first time since winter break. But they will have to follow stricter COVID-19 measures to keep themselves and school staff safe, according to the province’s education minister, Stephen Lecce.
In a statement released on Sunday, Lecce told schools in seven public health units that will reopen for in-person classes on Jan. 25, that the province has introduced “additional and tougher layers of protection” in its safety measures and protocols to keep students and staff safe, as advised by the province’s chief medical officer, Dr. David Williams.
These will include enhanced screening protocols, mandatory masking for students in first through third grades and outdoors where physical distancing cannot be maintained, and province-wide targeted asymptomatic testing. The minister also said they have invested to improve the ventilation in schools.
“We have stricter active screening, specifically for the older students, both in elementary, high schools, as well as for staff. An active screening process, making sure no one is coming in with any symptoms at all,” Lecce said in a video posted on Twitter Sunday, adding that these “tougher measures” will by extension keep the parents safe.
“We also ensure that our testing capacity is ramped up dramatically with province-wide access to targeted surveillance testing so public health units in every region of Ontario can deploy the test that they need.”
But the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) criticised the Ford government for not having the concrete plans in place in advance of reopening schools on Monday.
“There is no real plan for schools. And enhanced safety measures are still lacking,” ETFO wrote on Twitter.
On top of that, the ETFO released a statement on Jan. 22 claiming that the Ford government failed to “keep Ontario’s students, educators and education workers safe.” It cited an article from Toronto Star, reporting that the provincial government has “dialed back or abandoned entirely” its own safety proposals for school reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to “save money,” based on internal documents from the Ministry of Education obtained by the Star.
“How are Ontarians to trust a government that disregards the advice of medical and health experts, and their own staff to save money?” ETFO President Sam Hammond said.
Besides ETFO, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, a union, has echoed a similar stance against the provincial government.
The public health units where schools are reopening today are the Grey Bruce Health Unit; the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit; the Hastings and Prince Edward Counties Health Unit; the Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington Health Unit; the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit; Peterborough Public Health, and Renfrew County and District Health Unit.
But the province has said that in five hot spot regions—Windsor-Essex, Peel, York, Toronto, and Hamilton—schools will remain closed for in-person learning until at least Feb. 10.
On Jan. 21, the Toronto-based Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) released a guidance document recommending Ontario reopen schools for in-person learning as soon as possible. The hospital reasoned that the harms of school closures outweigh the likelihood of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus spreading among children. The CCP virus causes the COVID-19 disease.
However, SickKids’ also included recommendations on how schools should operate in a pandemic environment—including access to non-invasive testing for all staff and students exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 patient.
For younger students, it suggests “cohorting classes” as a primary strategy, rather than strict physical distancing, “because of the centrality of play and socialization to their development and learning.” More robust physical distancing and the use of non-medical masks are suggested for high school and middle school students, particularly in the highest risk/epidemiology regions.
Andrew Chen and files from The Canadian Press contributed to this article.