Ontario’s students are still learning from home after the government paused in-person learning until January 17 at the earliest, but is the province ready for students to return?

“I was talking to [Education] Minister [Stephen] Lecce last night. We are working like crazy to get schools back on the 17th,” said Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford, in an interview with Q104, KenoraOnline and DrydenNow earlier this week.

“This was a tough choice, so we’re ramping up on a whole bunch of fronts with teachers, teacher’s assistants and kids getting vaccinated,” added Rickford.

The Greater Toronto area has been hosting immunization clinics for education staff and students within schools to bolster the province’s vaccination efforts, and Ontario is hoping to add more school-based clinics elsewhere as soon as possible.

The Minister says vaccination remains the best defence against the COVID-19 virus, and current lockdown measures and the return to in-person learning all depend on the capacity of Ontario’s healthcare sector after the emergence of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant.  

“Getting back on the 17th will all be about our capacity in the hospitals. I think our quasi-lockdown has helped, otherwise, it could have been very problematic,” says Rickford.

Ontario reported 9,706 new cases of COVID-19 on January 10, but the COVID-19 Science Advisory Table has estimated that only one in five COVID-19 cases are being confirmed at the moment, due to the changes of Ontario’s PCR testing requirements.

Health Minister Christine Elliott added that 2,467 patients are hospitalized with the virus, 438 of which are in intensive care units. That’s a significant jump from the 248 people in ICUs on January 3.

“We’re still hopeful,” adds Rickford. “We’re working very hard with every board of education to get them in a position to open on the 17th.  And we’ll watch the hospital numbers and what’s happening with other sectors and their capacity to stay open, and that will guide our decision.”

The Ontario Medical Association, Pediatricians Alliance of Ontario and the Canadian Paediatric Society have all sent an open letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Premier Doug Ford, urging the government to resume in-person learning as soon as possible.

When in-person learning does resume, students and staff members will have a number of new safety measures to adjust to.

Announced in a memo from the Ministry of Education to school boards in late December, the Ministry says they will stop collecting and reporting COVID-19 case numbers from school boards. Case counts will no longer be reported, but school closures will still be announced.

Ontario says all schools will be required to reinstate daily on-site confirmation of COVID-19 screening for all students and staff until further notice, and anyone who has symptoms that may be COVID-19 or is a confirmed positive case must self-isolate, regardless of vaccination status.

The province has also issued updating screening guidance for students and staff, as more potential COVID-19 symptoms are now included in schools’ self-isolation requirements, which range from five to 10 days, depending on symptoms.

Students in Grades 1 to 12 will still be required to wear a mask, while masking in Kindergarten remains highly recommended. Cloth masks are also expected to be handed out to students, while staff will receive N95 masks.

Elementary students will now be required to cohort during recess and outdoor breaks, to help limit contacts as much as possible Indoor high contact activities, as well as choirs and wind instrument ensembles, will also be paused to help ensure the health and well-being of students.

School boards are being asked to continue offering remote learning services, both short-term and full-time, and should be prepared for students to be screened out of in-person learning.

Remote learning may also be used for up to one day per week to accommodate staff absences. The Ministry has also said they will allow boards to combine classes and assign students to different classes as needed.

Ontario says local school boards are also being asked to work with local public health units to find an appropriate timetable model for secondary students by February, either returning to the quadmester model with two classes per day or the semester model with four classes per day.

Ontario says they’ve also provided over 70,000 HEPA filter units and other ventilation devices to be deployed in schools across the province, and an additional 3,000 HEPA filter units are headed to Ontario school boards.

Rickford, who also serves as the Minister of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, as well as the Minister of Indigenous Affairs, adds Ontario is still facing a province-wide shortage of rapid antigen COVID-19 tests, but more supplies are on the way.

“It’s about giving institutions the tools they need to keep business sectors and healthcare services going and to get our education system back on track and put kids back where they belong – back in schools. Hopefully, that will be in the next couple of weeks.”

The Ontario government announced the pause of in-person learning and new lockdown measures on January 3.