Ontario’s back-to-school plan encouraging, but lacks vaccine policy: experts

WATCH: Parents, children nervous about another school year during pandemic

Teachers and parents in Ontario now have a clearer idea of what the new school year will look like, as children prepare to return to full-time in-class learning next month.

The provincial government released an eagerly-awaited plan Tuesday, outlining COVID-19 guidance for all schools in an effort to restore in-person classes at all boards.

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The document, which rehashes elements of previous back-to-school plans, said staff at publicly-funded boards and at private schools should be preparing to provide a full day (five hours) of in-person instruction five days a week.

This is in contrast to the online learning that students in Ontario have been doing since April, as the province faced the peak of the pandemic’s third wave, as well as the hybrid model — combining face-face and virtual classes — being used by some public health units.

Experts say resuming in-person learning in the fall is an encouraging sign, and that the detailed plan released by the government is flexible and a step in the right direction.

“The underlying message here is that schools are incredibly important, that we need to focus on the mental health, that we need to focus on getting them back into school,” said Dr. Martha Fulford, an infectious disease specialist with McMaster Children’s Hospital and Hamilton Health Sciences.

Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at the University of Toronto, said the government’s plan is trying to balance keeping children in school while attempting to reduce the risk through masking and physical distancing.

Face masks and coverings will be required indoors for students in grades 1 through 12, except for eating and during low-contact physical education classes. Kindergarten students will be encouraged to wear a mask, but it won’t be required.

At the elementary school level (Grade 8 and below), students will be cohorted for the full day and, when possible, with one teacher. The guidance document says cohorts can mix outside — so long as there is distancing — and students can use common spaces like libraries, so long as existing public health guidance is followed.

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Fulford said the strategy of cohorting is a “really good evolution to allow children to get back to normal.”

“It means that kids can be together, they can play, they can socialize, and they can actually be normal.”

In the case of exposure to COVID-19, having cohorts as opposed to intermixing the whole grade results in fewer children having to isolate at home, said Banerji.

Schools with mechanical ventilation are expected to use the highest-grade filters possible and turn their systems on at least two hours before school starts, and schools without are expected to have standalone HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter units in all classrooms.

Dr. Peter Juni, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Toronto and scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said the emphasis on masking and ventilation is a key part of the overall provincial plan.

“That’s probably the most important part here. Rather than hygiene theatres, we need just the best possible ventilation and in cases where this is not possible, we also need to use filtration with HEPA filters to get the most out of the setting,” he said.

Banerji agreed, saying improving ventilation systems is “really critical for the prevention of COVID-19″ and there is a greater focus on that in the back-to-school plan, as opposed to transmission through objects.

Cleaning and disinfection of high-touch surfaces is suggested at least twice daily. This includes washrooms, eating areas, doorknobs, light switches, handles and desks.

When it comes to vaccinations, the guidance follows past Ontario government messaging in that COVID-19 vaccinations will not be mandatory for anyone. However, those eligible are being encouraged to get inoculated.

Banerji said while the plan is reasonable, fairly comprehensive and more permissive than previous school guidance, the lack of policy around vaccination is a “glaring omission.”

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She said vaccinations should be mandatory in schools for teachers and students who are eligible to get the shots.

“In the middle of a pandemic with the Delta variant, I find it hard to understand why we wouldn’t want kids to be vaccinated,” she said.

Last week, Ontario’s top doctor said students aged 12 to 17 who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19 will be subject to stricter isolation rules in the event of virus outbreaks this fall.

Dr. Kieran Moore says students who are fully vaccinated against the virus will have to take COVID-19 tests if they’re in contact with a high-risk person.

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Students who test negative can go back to school, but those who aren’t immunized will be off school for a minimum of 10 days while they wait for test results.

Banerji said the provincial document didn’t address this point about how schools can enforce different rules for vaccinated versus unvaccinated children.

Juni said a clear reference to transparent reporting of vaccination rates for schools was also missing.

“I think this would give some reassurance, but also a basis for discussion to parents, to the communities and catchment areas of schools,” he said.

Indoors, students can sing and play instruments, including wind instruments, in areas with adequate ventilation.

Masks are encouraged indoors but not required for singing if there is distancing, and two metres should also be maintained inside when playing wind instruments within a cohort.

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Juni said there was a risk in this approach and he would rather see the music classes moved outdoors.

“Even if well-ventilated, if multiple cohorts are in the same space, that’s the part where I feel a bit concerned, actually,” he said.

Assemblies will also be allowed to resume as well as field and overnight trips, which Banerji said would be especially risky if the children were unvaccinated.

“I think any time you have a group of kids that are unvaccinated that are overnight in the same place, … then that is risky,” she said.

For daily COVID-19 protocols, students will need to complete self-screening and on-site screening can be directed by the Ontario Ministry of Education if there are periods of higher transmission (e.g. after a holiday).

Despite the safety measures, Banerji said she does expect to see outbreaks and COVID-19 spreading in schools come fall, but most kids will not get very sick, she said.

— with files from Global News’ Nick Westoll, Kamil Karamali, Anuska Yadav and the Canadian Press.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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