Masks will not be mandatory in Ontario schools this fall, but will be provided to staff and students who wish to continue wearing them if they are concerned about COVID-19, the education ministry says.
In a memo sent to directors of education late Friday afternoon, Deputy Minister Nancy Naylor said when classes resume in September, COVID-19 protocols will be the same as last spring, and that personal protective equipment as well as rapid tests will be provided.
“Continuing with this direction and based on the advice of the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, masks will not be required for students, staff and visitors in schools, school board offices, or on student transportation,” Naylor wrote.
“We strongly encourage school boards and schools to actively promote respectful, welcoming and inclusive environments for individuals who choose to wear, or not to wear a mask within their school communities. The government will continue to provide free high-quality masks for students and staff and eye protection for staff, if they choose to use them.”
In the memo, obtained by the Star, Naylor also reiterated the province’s back-to-school plan, which includes tutoring, funding for mental health as well as a new focus on skilled trades.
“For the past two school years, Ontario’s students, and their families, educators and school staff have demonstrated resiliency and flexibility in responding to changes to public health and workplace safety measures during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she wrote.
“The Ministry of Education remains committed to providing students with a normal return to school and to supporting an enriching school experience that enables academic success and lets students take advantage of the activities and programs that enhance classroom learning and build social and life skills.”
The province dropped the mask mandate in schools last March, though the Hamilton board decided it would continue insisting on masks to help staff and students feel safe — although such a move was not enforceable given the direction by Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore that they were no longer needed.
For staff who work with students who have special needs, N95s may be required depending on their duties.
Hand sanitizer will also be provided to boards, and enhanced cleaning routines are to continue in schools and on buses.
Naylor also noted the province has provided more than 100,000 HEPA units to help with ventilation in classrooms, and that every kindergarten class must have one.
Daily COVID self-screening is also recommended for all students, staff and visitors, and anyone who feels sick should stay home.
Boards should still track absence rates and report any spikes to local public health officials, Naylor wrote.
Lecce, speaking to reporters late last month, said rapid tests would continue and “we think it’s important to build confidence to reduce risk in addition to the HEPA filter investments in addition to (school) staff” and he encouraged those working in schools to get their second booster shot.
“They’re now eligible for that so we can all take steps individually,” Lecce said.
At that time, Lecce also said negotiations with all education unions continue and that school will start on time in September and that extracurricular clubs and sports must be offered.
He said after more than two years of the pandemic, parents will have “little tolerance” for any disruptions to their children’s education.
“I believe after two years of great difficulty, the right thing to do is to ensure (students return) to normal and to the full student experience, which includes clubs and extracurriculars, and so we are signalling our clear intent to have those services, those experiences, restored, and to support children,” Lecce said.
Extracurriculars, however, are voluntary. Unions have not signalled that teachers would refuse to do them this fall but said it is up to individuals to decide.
Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, has told the Star her union has not planned any job action and teachers are free to run extracurricular activities.
After-school clubs and sports are “part of what they love about their job, but they have to decide what they’re going to be able to do, and delivering the curriculum is the number-one job,” she told the Star.
All education union contracts expire at the end of August, and bargaining continues.
Even if new agreements aren’t reached by the start of the school year — past bargaining has showed they typically are not reached until much later — that does not mean there will be immediate job action or that a strike would be called.
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy