Ontario is still unsure if students will be returning to their classrooms this year.

Ontario’s schools have been closed since April 12, after announcing students wouldn’t be returning after the April Break and virtual learning would be continuing indefinitely. In northwestern Ontario, the Keewatin-Patricia and Kenora Catholic school year calendars end by June 25.

But as of May 4, Ontario says school boards have been instructed to not require a parental decision on in-person or remote learning for their child before June 1, at the earliest. This means that early June could be Ontario’s new target date for a return to in-person learning.

In late April, Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford said he was hopeful that Ontario would be able to allow students to return to the classroom, depending on restrictions, cases and vaccine supplies at the time, and teachers are not yet eligible based on Ontario’s vaccine roll-out.

But in the meantime, Ontario has developed a new learning recovery plan for students who may have struggled to learn virtually throughout the school year, on top of nearly $2 billion in additional funding announced on May 4.

“As we continue to work with the Chief Medical Officer of Health to evaluate the safe resumption of in-class learning, our number-one priority remains safety in the classroom,” said Ontario’s Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

“To deliver on that priority, our government is making more than $1.6 billion available to protect school safety while investing in the long-term success of students with more support for reading, math, mental health, and special education needs.”

Lecce was joined by Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Health Robin Martin, and President and CEO of Kids Help Phone Katherine Hay to make the nearly $2 billion funding announcement virtually, which includes:

- $59 million for special education, mental health, well-being and equity supports,
- $35 million in additional technology funding and remote learning technology,
- $20 million to support recovery and renewal efforts,
- $29 million for increased costs related to school operations,
- $66 million for enhanced cleaning protocols and safety measures in student transportation,
- $86 million for school-focused nurses in public health units and testing,
- $384 million in temporary COVID-19 staffing supports
- Up to $450 million in personal protective equipment and critical supplies,
- Up to $508 million for school boards to access up to 2 percent of reserves to support COVID-19 expenses.

Ontario’s new $85 million Learning Recovery and Renewal plan addresses the effects of learning disruptions due to the pandemic and will include reading and math supports, student re-engagement efforts and a number of mental health and well-being supports.

“We are grateful to the government and to the Ministry of Education for continuing to provide critical funds to support the mental health of youth in Ontario – this is vitally important to students,” said Hay

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have had 1.2 million connections with youth in Ontario – more than double the previous year. The government’s funding enables us to provide access to more supports for more young people in their time of need – no issue is too big or too small.”

The plan includes partnering with School Mental Health Ontario to support educators as well, with additional teaching resources and coaches, summer learning and special education supports, among other initiatives.

“Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health has said that schools have been safe, and with this record investment and continued implementation of the best medical advice, we will keep schools safe as we look ahead to September,” adds Lecce.

Ontario says the Ministry of Education will continue to work closely with the Ministry of Health, Chief Medical Officer of Health and healthcare experts to confirm strategies required for the upcoming school year, including guidance on masking, hand hygiene, screening and more.

“Our government is making historic investments in Ontario’s public education system and I am proud to announce today’s significant funding increase for school boards in Kenora-Rainy River,” said Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford, who notes about $17 million of the funding is allocated to northwestern Ontario. 

“Our kids have faced unprecedented challenges over the past year. We are investing in our students, teachers and school boards to ensure schools in northwestern Ontario are ready to take on the 2021-2022 school year.”

On April 14, Minister Lecce and the province announced over $3.6 million provincial and federal dollars for five local school boards to support safety improvements in schools ahead of the 2021-2022 school year.

Funding will support projects such as ventilation projects to improve air quality in classrooms, new water bottle refilling stations, network and broadband infrastructure improvements to support remote learning, and new walls and doors to enhance physical distancing spaces within schools.

Since the start of the pandemic, Lecce says the Ontario government has invested more than $3.2 billion to protect students, staff and families from COVID-19.