Schools in Grey Bruce, Peterborough, Haliburton and Kingston are among those in southern Ontario allowed to open their doors to students to attend class in person, starting Monday.
However, public health units in Halton and Durham were not given the go-ahead, meaning all schools in Greater Toronto will continue to teach students online because of high rates of COVID-19, the government announced late Wednesday afternoon.
“On the advice from the chief medical officer of health, the government is allowing seven public health units and over 100,000 students to return to class” Jan. 25, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement.
“Getting students back into class is our top priority,” he said, adding that all students, starting in Grade 1, must now wear masks indoors, and also outdoors if they can’t remain physically distant.
The government previously put off school reopenings in Toronto, Peel, York, Hamilton and Windsor-Essex to Feb. 10 — all considered provincial hot spots.
Schools in the north welcomed children back Monday, with a few exceptions in communities that saw a sharp jump in cases over the holidays.
The seven areas where elementary and secondary students can resume in-person learning on Jan. 25 are: Haliburton/Kawartha/Pine Ridge; Peterborough; Grey Bruce; Hastings/Prince Edward; Leeds/Grenville/Lanark; Renfrew; Kingston/Frontenac/Lennox & Addington.
Students in all other southern Ontario public health districts will remain online for now, and the government gave no specific timeline other than to say the chief medical officer of health will monitor COVID cases and determine when kids can return.
Because school boards may have different boundaries from regional health units, some will find themselves reopening schools in some areas, while keeping others closed.
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, is also a trustee with the Kawartha Pine Ridge board, which is spread over three different health units. One of those is Durham, meaning all Clarington schools will stick with virtual lessons for now.
“In a board where you are split up into different health units, you often do things based on those kinds of divisions,” she said. “We can do it.”
She said boards are prepared for in-class or online learning, adding “it’s not like the spring” when schools were abruptly shut down and classes went virtual during the first COVID wave.
“We have always known this was a possibility, of some being online and some not — we’ve been planning for all possibilities,” she added.
Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said the union is “pleased that health and safety considerations seem to have been taken into account in a number of southern Ontario school boards.”
However, he added “once again there has been no consultation with education unions and no transparency as to the data that are driving these decisions.”
MPP Marit Stiles, the NDP’s education critic, said the government’s announcement was “light on details, leaving more questions than answers.”
The NDP and teacher unions have been calling for more staff, smaller classes and improved ventilation systems, among other COVID safety measures.