Ontario students will be required to wear masks and maintain physical distancing indoors wherever possible when they return to the classroom next month, but will be allowed to participate in many extracurricular activities that had been banned since the start of the pandemic.

The province’s back-to-school plan was released on Tuesday, after an academic year during which in-person learning was shut down for longer than anywhere else in Canada. Even though in-person classes will resume, families can continue with remote learning. Vaccinations for students 12 and older will be encouraged, but not mandatory.

“I am elated that they are going back to school this September,” Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, said in a news briefing on Tuesday. “This is crucially important to their mental, physical and social well-being. But it’s also important to do so cautiously and carefully, so we will need to maintain some level of public-health measures for now.”

The plan drew criticism from teachers’ unions and opposition parties, who have called on the government to reduce class sizes and do more to improve ventilation. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, warned on Friday that Canada is in a race to vaccinate enough people to prevent a fourth wave that could overwhelm hospitals.

Many COVID-19 safety protocols will remain, although Dr. Moore said local school boards and public-health units will review and adjust the measures if community transmission is low and vaccination rates are high.

Students will be separated into cohorts for their classes, and will be placed with their group as much as possible – for instance, they’ll sit next to each other on the school bus – to limit contact with other students.

All staff and students must self-screen for illness each morning, and anyone with COVID-19 symptoms will not be allowed to attend school. They are being advised to follow public-health guidance, including seeking medical attention and testing.

The province has narrowed the list of symptoms that would prompt testing to minimize inconvenience to families, Dr. Moore said. Last year, students got tested for mild symptoms, such as a runny nose, and many tests were negative. Now, students will get tested only for symptoms very specific to COVID-19, such as fever, cough, increasing shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell, vomiting and diarrhea.

The province is also looking into different forms of testing, such as saliva or cheek swabs, rather than the sample from the back of the nose, based on feedback from families, Dr. Moore said.

Masking will be required indoors for grades 1 through 12, and on school vehicles, except when students are eating or playing low-contact sports. Extracurricular activities will be permitted in areas with adequate ventilation. Choir practice, for instance, can be indoors, and masking will be encouraged but not required if a minimum distance of two metres can be maintained between cohorts.

Under the plan, inter-school sports will resume, but high-contact physical activities will be outdoors only. Masking won’t be required outside.

Opposition politicians, who for weeks have demanded detailed back-to-school plans, called the government’s announcement too little, too late. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath accused the Ford government of “rolling the dice,” saying in a news release that the plan fails to reduce class sizes or adequately improve ventilation. According to the plan, all schools without mechanical ventilation systems must have at least one stand-alone high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter unit in every classroom.

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said many questions are still unanswered, such as criteria for when schools would have to close. She applauded the mask mandate and the return of extracurriculars, but said some teachers may not feel comfortable supervising activities such as sports that won’t require masks.

“There’s a number of concerns that we have,” Ms. Littlewood said. “It’s a good start.”

A news release from Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said the plan is incomplete and inadequate, and expressed concern that loosening precautions will lead to COVID-19 outbreaks and further disruption to in-person learning. He added that most elementary school students are ineligible for vaccines.

The union called on the government to, among other measures, reduce class sizes to allow for maximum physical distancing and require masks for kindergarten.

Last month, Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table and the province’s pediatric hospitals released a report with recommendations for the government regarding in-person learning in the fall. The Children’s Health Coalition said in a statement on Tuesday that it is pleased to see that the main elements of that report appear to have been adopted, and that it looks forward to reviewing the plan in greater detail.

Andrew Morris, an infectious-disease physician at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and University Health Network and a member of the science advisory table, said the plan was a “pretty good” attempt to balance safety, the need for normalcy and the uncertainties about what the fall holds.

But he said a key component is missing: mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for eligible students 12 and up, who already must have shots for measles, mumps and other contagious diseases, with some exemptions. The province is encouraging school boards to promote vaccination with families.

Dr. Morris also said he generally supports the mask rules, which are stricter than the science table’s recommendation. But he said maskless choirs, bands and indoor sports could put students at higher risk than sitting in a classroom, given that the virus is airborne.

Dr. Moore said the province understands the possibility of aerosol transmission through these activities, but “we can never eliminate the risk completely.” He added that the danger is small as long as schools follow the province’s measures. He said he was “confident” in the plan.

“I really don’t see our schools closing going into the fall and winter and spring,” he said. “All of those measures that we’re recommending I think will keep our schools safe.”

The Globe and Mail, August 3, 2021