TORONTO (Reuters) - Ontario plans to reopen all its publicly funded schools in September, with elementary-age students returning to classrooms on a full-time basis and class sizes at some secondary schools limited to about 15 students who will attend on alternate days, the Canadian province announced on Thursday.
Ontario closed its schools in mid-March to limit the spread of the new coronavirus. The question of how to safely reopen schools has been closely watched in the province, the most populous in Canada and home to some 2 million students.
Students in grade 4 and up must wear masks at all times, although some exceptions can be made at the discretion of schools and their boards.
Ontario’s government said school boards must prepare to offer online learning for parents who choose not to send their children back to school.
“I want parents to know this plan was developed by the top health experts in Ontario,” Premier Doug Ford said at a press briefing.
Students in kindergarten through grade 8 will be in classrooms full-time, staying with the same “cohorted” class all day and with one teacher, where possible. Those enrolled in grades 9 to 12 in 24 school districts designated by the province will attend in class sizes of 15 students, coming in on alternate days.
Secondary schools in the other 48 school boards, which typically have smaller enrollment numbers, according to government documents, can allow students in to attend class full-time, although they are encouraged to arrange timetables to emphasize cohorting where possible.
The province will spend C$309 million ($230 million) to boost staffing and personal protective equipment, among other measures.
Four major unions in Ontario representing 200,000 teachers and education workers issued a joint statement opposing the plan, saying it does not provide enough money to adequately protect educators and students.
“This plan is an insult to every student, every parent and every educator in the province of Ontario,” said Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation.
Ontario is so far the only province in Canada to make masks mandatory for students.
In British Columbia, schools will reopen in September with “learning groups” of 60 staff and students maximum in elementary schools and 120 maximum in secondary schools, among other measures.
Ontario as of Wednesday reported 89 new cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, for a total of 39,075 cases. The province recorded three more deaths, bringing its total death toll to 2,772.
($1 = 1.3416 Canadian dollars)
Reporting by Moira Warburton in Toronto; Editing by Chris Reese, Paul Simao and Marguerita Choy