Collectively, we recognize the importance of returning students to a more normal, full-time, in-person learning environment. For Ontario students, nothing matters more. It is key to their well-being and long-term success.
As the public health situation evolves over the coming months, the ministry will continue to consult with and act on the advice of public health officials, including Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health. While the success of our province’s vaccination program is promising in providing protection against COVID-19 and its variants, greater vaccination coverage is required across all age cohorts, recognizing Ontario’s youngest learners are not currently eligible for a vaccine. As recommended by Ontario’s Science Table, the Hospital for Sick Children, and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, this necessitates a cautious start to reopening schools. The ministry will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation with the aim of creating a more normal experience for Ontario Students, as recommended by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health.
As students head back to class, I want to thank you for your continued collaboration on this important matter.
2021-22 School Year Health and Safety Guidance:
As we look toward the 2021-22 school year, we will continue to focus on the health and well-being of students, families and staff, while aiming to return to as normal conditions as are safely possible. That is why, based on advice from the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health (OCMOH), province-wide in September:
- Students may return to in-person learning daily for the full school day.
- Students in Grades 1-12 and staff will be required to wear masks while indoors and on student transportation (encouraged for students in Kindergarten), while not being required outdoors, and;
- Extra-curricular and inter-school sport activities will be permitted with some modifications.
For further details on required health and safety measures for the 2021-22 school year, please see COVID-19: Health, Safety and Operational Guidance for Schools (2021-22). This guidance aligns with and is in addition to the Planning for the 2021-22 School Year memo released in May 2021 to private schools.
We also encourage schools offering in-person summer school in August and schools beginning their school year in early August to transition to the 2021-22 guidance as soon as they are able to do so.
The Ministry will continue to work with the OCMOH and local public health units (PHUs) to adjust health and safety requirements (e.g., more or less restrictive measures) and update guidance as required based on the public health environment and province-wide metrics. Adjustments may be made at a regional level and local PHUs may also require schools to adopt targeted health and safety measures based on local experience and data. We encourage schools to continue to work closely with their local PHUs on their reopening plans.
Vaccination and Public Health Supports:
We know that vaccination is an important tool to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and allow students, families, and staff to safely resume normal activities. We ask that schools work with local PHUs over the coming weeks to build on progress to date and reach out to families to promote vaccination prior to the 2021-22 school year. We ask you to support vaccination opportunities as well as ‘catch up’ opportunities in schools, where appropriate, for other vaccine preventable diseases.
To assist schools and families, the Ministry will continue to work with the Ministry of Health to support local PHUs and schools with the planning and prioritization of school health supports for the fall.
Our testing strategy in schools is grounded in guidance from the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health and reflects close collaboration with local public health units, schools and Ontario Health. This guidance will take into account different factors such as if the individual has symptoms, is a close contact of someone who has been diagnosed with COVID and the vaccination status of the individual.
When an individual is identified as needing testing under the guidelines, where possible, they will be offered a testing approach that is as minimally invasive as possible (e.g. nasal, mouth and saliva testing).
When tests are indicated we will make them quickly accessible through multiple approaches (e.g. assessment centres and community testing sites) with a focus on reducing barriers to access and recognizing the unique needs of certain communities and geographies. When the guidance indicates a need for prompt testing for an individual, starting in September we will initiate a program in some secondary schools where student and staff will be provided with a test kit to take home. The test can be self-administered or administered by another person and returned to an approved drop-off location. This testing approach is in addition to locally-driven testing initiatives, and may be expanded throughout the school year to additional secondary and elementary schools based on uptake, effectiveness and demand.
Regardless of how or where the testing is performed, once the test has been collected and submitted to a provincial lab we are committed to a quick processing time. We recognize the necessity for quick turn around time for tests for working parents, students and education staff. The province has made steady investments in our testing capacity. With a focus on reducing student and staff absenteeism, and impacts on working parents, consistent with the provincial standard, more than 80% of test results are available within 2 days; and most within 24 hours.
These efforts to ensure that testing is done quickly and effectively will minimize time away for students, children and staff while also reducing the impact on their families.
Health and Physical Education:
Being active has a positive impact on physical fitness and is an important element of achievement, mental health, well-being and overall student success. Based on advice from the OCMOH, extra-curricular and inter-school sport activities will be permitted with some modifications province-wide in September.
A cautious approach for sports in schools is recommended by the OCMOH for the start of the 2021-22 school year. Guidance regarding sports activities in schools will be monitored and adapted in response to public health trends.
As outlined in the COVID-19: Health, Safety and Operational Guidance for Schools (2021-2022), high-contact and low-contact sports are permitted outdoors. In indoor settings, only low-contact sports are permitted at this time provided physical distancing can be maintained between cohorts. If distancing requirements cannot be maintained low-contact sports may still be played indoors when wearing a mask.
To support schools in determining which sport activities are permitted indoors for the start of the school year, the Ministry of Education has provided some examples to support application of the guidance. This information will be updated to align with changes in the public health environment as required. See Appendix A for further details.
Student Mental Health and Well-Being:
Promoting positive mental health and ensuring a supportive and inclusive environment for all students is all the more important as we return to in-person learning. Comprehensive supports for student mental health and well-being should continue to be prioritized in all planning.
As we reopen schools to in-person learning, priority should be placed on understanding the needs of students and collaborating with community partners to deliver culturally relevant supports for students. Remedial programs should be targeted to students who experience greater barriers to achievement and wellbeing.
Plans should consider inclusive ways to welcome all parents/caregivers and families as important members of the school communities and to value peer relationships, and promote family mental health. Planning should also consider re-engagement of those students who were not able to fully participate in learning over the past school year, and children who may have been temporarily separated from parents/caregivers or may have had to assume additional responsibilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
First Nation- and Federally-Operated schools:
First Nation- and federally-operated schools are exempt from these measures. The Ministry of Education recognizes the authority of First Nation communities to determine locally-identified measures to protect their communities. Further, we understand that COVID-19 controls within First Nation and federally-operated schools are currently in place, in addition to those controls First Nations schools and federally-operated schools could consider adopting the guidance in this return to school direction.
We are encouraged by the progress made to date and remain committed to ensuring more normal, healthy and safe school environments for students and staff that meet the educational and development needs of students.