Ontario government announces guidelines for students returning to in-person classes this fall

Guidelines require face masks indoors and daily self-screening, but COVID-19 vaccinations not mandatory

Students in a classroom and their teacher wearing face masks. (Stock photo)

On Tuesday (August 3), the Ontario government quietly released its back-to-school guidelines for the 2021-2022 school year — one which will see all elementary and secondary school students returning to the classroom, with remote learning remaining an option.

The guidelines include a requirement for face masks for students and staff, as well as self-screening before coming to school. However, the guidelines do not require mandatory vaccinations and provide no details on how schools will manage and monitor COVID-19 cases and outbreaks.

While there was no official announcement about the guidelines, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore responded to many questions from reporters during a media briefing on Tuesday afternoon — including under what circumstances schools would be closed.

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“I really can’t envision or see any closure of any schools in Ontario, or colleges or universities,” Dr Moore said. “We must maintain them open going forward,” comparing the management of COVID-19 to other viruses like influenza.

“I think we have to normalize COVID-19 for schools, and have an approach that’s prudent, that’s cautious, but that realizes we’re going to have a rise in cases, but we’re going to adhere to best practices to minimize the spread and keep our communities safe.”

Those best practices include requiring all students in Grades 1 to 12 to wear non-medical face masks while indoors at school, including in hallways and during classes as well as on school vehicles (which can operate at full capacity).

However, students will be allowed to remove masks indoors during low-contact physical activities and while eating and drinking, and will not be required to wear masks outdoors. Students in kindergarten are encouraged to wear masks but they won’t be required.

All school staff and visitors will be required to wear medical face masks indoors in school, including in hallways and during classes.

All staff and students must also self-screen for COVID-19 symptoms every day before attending school, along with visitors.

Elementary students will be cohorted for the entire school day, with a single teacher if possible. For secondary schools, school boards are instructed “to timetable students with no more than two courses at a time in order to preserve the option of reverting to more restrictive measures, if needed.”

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Vaccinations are not mandatory for staff and students to attend school, with the guidelines only stating “School boards are encouraged to work with local public health units to reach out to families to promote vaccination.”

School assemblies or other gatherings will be permitted, along with clubs, sport teams, extra-curricular activities, and bands (but without wind instruments). Community use of schools will also be permitted.

Students and staff from different schools will be able to interact outdoors, where high-contact activities will be permitted without masks. However, only low-contact activities without masks would be permitted outdoors for inter-school sports.

School boards are expected to continue optimizing air quality in classrooms and learning environments through improving ventilation and filtration, and all ventilation systems must be inspected and be in good condition before the start of school year.

The guidelines are scant on details for how schools will manage COVID-19 cases and outbreaks. In the section called “Management of COVID-19 in schools”, the guidelines state “This section is forthcoming” and that it will build on operational guidance provided for the previous school year.

For the complete guidelines, visit ontario.ca/document/covid-19-health-safety-and-operational-guidance-schools-2021-2022.