Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce was joined by Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health on Wednesday to announce the return to in-person learning on Monday Jan. 17 and while a snow day delayed in person learning for an extra day, local students were back in class as of Tuesday morning.
Because of the escalation in the number of COVID-19 cases and the unknown nature of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, remote learning had been the order of the day since Jan.3, the date pupils were originally due to return to school following the winter break. On Wednesday, Minister Leece said strong protections have been put in place for students returning to classrooms this week such as Ontario deploying millions of rapid tests in schools and childcare centres, enhancing ventilation and having high quality PPE, along with increased access to vaccines for children on a voluntary basis and staff.
“As an additional measure, amid the highly transmissible omicron variant beginning the week of Jan. 17 I am announcing that rapid antigen tests will be provided for schools, childcare, and public schools, children in childcare settings and students in public elementary schools,” Lecce stated. “Staff and students will receive two tests each as an initial supply with over 3.9 million rapid tests shipped to schools. We will continue to expand access to rapid antigen tests for parents, for students and staff and these tests will be made available for students in public secondary schools on a need basis, and more tests will be available in the coming weeks so that we can help limit the spread of covid in our learning environments.”
The Ontario government supported high quality PPE by providing access to more then nine million, non-fitted N-95 masks to all education and childcare staff. The government also invested in better ventilation for all schools and learning environments with HEPA air filtration units
“We’re also further improving ventilation by deploying an additional 3,000 HEPA units to learning environments, this builds on significant investments announced by our government over the past year and a half.,” said Lecce. “Every step of the way we’ve increased ventilation, and as a result of those early investments well before omicron hit our country and our province, we were leading in ventilation. 70,000 hepa units in schools since September, $600 million invested, over 2,000 major mechanical ventilation improvements in our schools that were underway. And together this has really helped to ensure we have high quality ventilation in all schools because every single school has been inspected. And we continue to take action to improve the air quality in schools, so much so that we believe in the transparency of that information which is why since September every single school in Ontario, all 4,800 without an exception, have reported on their upgrades, their improvements, on the number of HEPA units in their school and that is on every school boards website and on school websites should they have a website themselves. But were going further, were deploying 3,000 more within our schools. We’ve also created a more stricter screening protocol for students and staff before they enter schools to help prevent any cases from getting there in the first place.”
Measures put in place to prepare for the return to in-person learning include the following:
- High-Quality Masks: Providing access to more than 10 million non-fit-tested N95 masks to all education and child care staff, the only province to do so, with more than four million three-ply cloth masks for students recently shipped for use in schools.
- Improved Ventilation: Deploying an additional 3,000 standalone HEPA filter units to learning environments, building on the ventilation improvement measures already in place at every school across Ontario, including the more than 70,000 HEPA filter units and other ventilation devices that have been provided and mechanical ventilation upgrades.
- Stricter Screening: Updated and stricter screening requirements for students and staff, including daily onsite confirmation of screening.
- Historic Funding: School board access to $1.6 billion in resources to protect against COVID-19, including supports for mental health, technology, over 2,350 additional staff and ventilation.
- Access to Additional Educators: Access to retired educators for a longer period of time following a recent agreement with the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, and access to first year teacher candidates who are deemed eligible.
- Enhanced Cohorting and Cleaning: New time-limited cohorting protocols to limit direct and indirect contacts by pausing high-contact extra curricular sports, stricter lunch cohort requirements, and elevated cleaning requirements at all schools.
“Throughout the pandemic strong public health measures along with comprehensive interventions by local public health units have been extremely effective in supporting schools to operate as safely as possible,” Dr. Moore said. “As we prepare for Monday we remain focused on the measures that we know work. While the risk of transmission in school settings can never be eliminated, it can be reduced or mitigated through public health measures including improve vaccination, better masking, ventilation, cohorting, and staying home when sick. And we continue to invest and support these important interventions to support our kids learning in the classroom.”
To further support staffing stability and reduce disruption for students, families, and education and child care staff, the government is further expanding access to vaccines by:
- Supporting a mass vaccination clinic at the International Centre with dedicated times for education and child care staff
- Opening 10 vaccination clinics across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area that offer dedicated time slots for education and child care staff
- Encouraging public health units to support accelerated access to boosters.
More than five million Ontarians have already received a booster shot and the above vaccination options are in addition to those also being offered locally by public health units across the province.
With these measures in place, including new testing options and expanded access to vaccination, and continuous improvement to ventilation, the Ontario government is supporting access to in-person learning with greater stability for students and families. Remote learning will remain an option for those families wishing to access it.
“We also know vaccination remains our best defence in the fight against covid-19,” declared Lecce. “It is essential for everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated. Millions of vaccines have been administered and we know they are safe, we know they are effective. Now it is encouraging that 82 per cent of youth aged 12-17 are fully immunized, that is brilliant as we continue to work to increase that rate. It is positive that nearly 50 per cent of children 5-11 have received their first dose, however there is more we can do and more we will do, which is why our government is launching school based clinics to support greater uptake of vaccination of eligible children and youth that requires the consent of parents in this province. This is just another option that will allow parents and children to safely and conveniently vaccinate themselves with the full consent and approval of parents, also we will continue to provide planned access and accelerated access that our education and childcare staff, as you know just days ago we announced accelerated access for these staff encouraging them to get a booster in a community across Ontario. It will help support stability amongst our staff and keep students learning. We ask all education and childcare staff to book early, book an appointment today for a booster in your community.”
Dr. Moore added that he understands sending your children back to school this week will be worrying for many.
“The speed with which information changes and guidelines and advise are updated can be overwhelming,” Dr. Moore expressed. “Please know we continue to review the data, the evidence and adjust health and safety requirements to ensure our schools remain safe and open for in-person learning. Protecting our children and getting them back to the classroom is important for me. We must always strive to have our schools the last to close and the first to open, we owe that to our kids.”
For more information on investments to support return to in-person learning from the government of Ontario please visit https://news.ontario.ca/en/backgrounder/1001418/ontario-government-increasing-resources-and-investments-to-support-return-to-in-person-learning