Local students to return to class on Feb. 8

WELLINGTON COUNTY – Local students will be returning to in-class learning next week.

Education minister Stephen Lecce announced on Feb. 3 that all public health units still confined to online-only learning, except those in Toronto, Peel and York, would reopen schools to all students on Feb. 8 after five-weeks of virtual learning.

“Ontario is ready to open our schools because it is safe,” said Lecce, who later noted “there is nothing more profoundly important” than protecting students.

The province initially introduced a one-week period of online learning (Jan. 4 to 11) as part of an Ontario-wide lockdown announced on Dec. 12 (effective on Dec. 26).

That period was extended to coincide with the province’s second COVID-19 emergency declaration and a stay-at-home order issued on Jan. 14.

The Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) and Wellington Catholic District School Board (WCDSB) had previously suggested a return to the classrooom would be delayed until Feb. 11 “at the earliest.”

But Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH), of which both boards are a part, is included in the list of health units able to return to in-person learning next week.

Toronto, Peel and York schools will reopen to all students on Feb. 16.

Lecce noted provincial health officials were “unanimous” in their support of returning to class and all public health units across the province were consulted and have bought into the plan.

Returning kids to school safely “is crucial for their development, mental health and future success,” he said.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams, who joined Lecce at the press conference, said health officials have been encouraged by the drop in new daily cases as well as the positive trends in COVID-19 indicators over the last couple of weeks.

“Our schools are safe, they were safe and we want them to remain safe,” said Williams.

He encouraged everyone to continue to follow public health guidelines such as masking and distancing.

“Reducing the transmission of COVID-19 is fundamental to keeping our communities and schools safe,” said Williams.

“Our collective efforts … in addition to the enhanced safety measures in schools, will help keep communities healthy and students learning alongside their peers in their classrooms.”

Noting, “As kids return to school, schools will be even safer,” Lecce reiterated the province has introduced the following measures for in-person learning:

  • mandatory masks for Grades 1 to 3 (older students are already required to wear masks);
  • requiring masks outdoors for all students “when physical distancing cannot be maintained”;
  • providing 3.5 million cloth masks to schools as a back-up supply;
  • enhanced screening protocols;
  • access to targeted asymptomatic testing for students and staff, in consultation with local public health units;
  • guidance discouraging students from congregating before and after school;
  • temporary certification of eligible teacher candidates who are set to graduate in 2021 to stabilize staffing levels; and
  • funding to improve air quality and ventilation in schools, support online learning, promote student mental health and hire additional staff.

Locally, the UGDSB will receive $3,377,393 through the federal Safe Return to Class Fund, with $845,000 earmarked for ventilation/air quality, $1,097,678 for health/safety, $1,337,835 for technological devices and $96,880 for student transportation.

The WCDSB will receive $790,868 through the fund, including $207,000 for ventilation/air quality, $253,343 for health/safety, $309,248 for technological devices and $21,277 for student transportation.

The government will also implement new health and safety measures in Ontario child care settings to align with school requirements. And Feb. 5 will be the last day for emergency child care.

Provincial officials have stressed that local public health units still have “the authority to close schools to in-person learning based on local circumstances.”