When classes resume across Canada in September, back-to-school is going to look a lot different than what students, teachers and parents are used to, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Provinces have revealed reopening plans in recent weeks and they’re chock-full of details on mask-wearing, class sizes and cleaning protocols. But they’re different for every province.
“As we see the plans rolling out in different provinces, certainly some of them have taken a slightly different approach than Alberta,” that province’s chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Thursday.
Each province has crafted its plan to suit specific needs. B.C.’s chief medical officer Dr. Bonnie Henry called her province’s plan “robust.
“This is a robust plan that puts the health and safety of our children, teachers and staff at the top of our list,” she said earlier this week.
And Henry acknowledged that despite reassurances, parents are likely still anxious about sending kids back to school in the current environment.
“We’re all anxious about this, none of us have been through a pandemic like this before,” she said.
So whether you’re an anxious parent, a student, a teacher or anyone else, you need to know what’s allowed and what’s not in your province’s classrooms this year.
Here’s what you need to know about the September school reopening plans across Canada.
Do students need to wear masks?
Of the major provinces, Ontario is the only one that will mandate mask-wearing in schools. All students and teachers from Grade 4-12 will be required to wear masks in schools, while it will be encouraged for younger students.
Mask-wearing will not be mandated in Alberta, and schools will actually be the exception to mandatory indoor mask policies in Calgary and Edmonton. Hinshaw said the government is still assessing the viability of mask mandates in schools and could shift course.
“That question (on masks) is something we want to evaluate carefully, and we are always looking at emerging evidence because we want to make sure that our guidance is based on the most up-to-date evidence that is available,” she said.
Following similar attitudes in B.C. municipalities, masks will not be mandated in B.C. schools but students and staff are being encouraged to wear them if they want.
Are class sizes changing?
Ontario’s regular class sizes will be maintained for students in Grades K-8 and students will attend five days a week. High school students in certain school districts, including Toronto, will be in classrooms 50 per cent of the normal time, and attend in “cohort” groups to prevent transmission. Those students will receive “curriculum-linked independent work” on days when they are not in class.
In Alberta, regular class sizes will be maintained for all students with no changes. When announcing the plan, Hinshaw touted the idea of cohorts, but said Thursday that specific guidance would come in the coming weeks.
In B.C., regular class sizes will be maintained for all students but they will be grouped into learning cohorts of 60 people for lower grade and 120 people for upper grades. These cohorts will share things such as breaks between classes, recess and lunch in order to limit interaction with other students.
WATCH: Learning groups part of B.C. return to schools. Story continues below.
On Thursday, Henry said this doesn’t mean physical distancing doesn’t apply.
“It doesn’t negate the physical distancing, What it says is that we know that we cannot always maintain physical distance at all times in schools, so we’re going to make sure the risk group is small,” she said. “You want to have your potential exposure group be much smaller than the entire school.”
In Quebec, students up to Grade 9 will return full-time to classrooms that will include “bubbles,” groups of six students within a class that won’t require any distancing at all. Other students will be required to maintain a one-metre distance, while students and staff will have to keep a two-metre distance.
Can I keep my child home?
In most provinces, officials have said parents will have the option to engage their children in remote learning. However, that will be sorted out at the school board level.
“There are options, we’re not saying that every child has to be in there,” Henry said of B.C.’s plan. “We know that there will be hybrid situations needed in some situations.”
What cleaning protocols are coming?
All provinces that have released school reopening plans thus far have touted robust cleaning and sanitization protocols, with some investing large sums of money into hand-washing stations and extra janitorial staff.
Many schools will have hand-sanitizer dispensers installed, and regular surface sanitization.
How much money is going into this?
Ontario has allocated $309 million in new funding for personal protective equipment and hiring teachers and school-based nurses.
On Wednesday, B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming announced $45.6 million in funding for school districts to boost things like cleaning in schools and provide reusable masks upon request.
Alberta will move funds around to accommodate extra cleaning expenses, but is not injecting any new money into the plan. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said there is money available, through capital maintenance and reserve funding, to install school upgrades to prevent the spread of the virus, but that allocation of money is up to school boards.
Around $15 million is specifically allocated for COVID-related items like hand sanitizing stations.
Alberta premier Jason Kenney faced criticism last week for not putting more money into the plan, suggesting students and staff can help “tidy up” to maintain sanitization.
“We expect all the staff in any workplace to help tidy up,” he said during debate earlier this week.
What happens if a student tests positive?
Most provinces have some sort of protocol in place.
On Thursday, Hinshaw said that there is a possibility in Alberta that all students in a class would have to self-isolate for 14-days if a classmate tests positive. Class sizes also could be limited to 20 and other measures tightened if there’s an outbreak.
In Ontario’s guidelines released Thursday, the province outlined protocols for what schools must do when a student or staff member tests positive or shows symptoms.
Most International Students Barred From Canada Right Now: Government
Syrian Refugee's Education Was First Derailed By War, Then The Pandemic
Women's Participation In Work Force Hits Lowest Level In 3 Decades: RBC
Persons who test positive may not return to school until they are cleared by public health, while persons who test negative can return once they are symptom-free for 24 hours. Schools will also be responsible for maintaining logs of all student, staff and visitor movement to aid in contact tracing.
In B.C., Henry said that her province has learned from June’s “trial run” reopening schools, as well as reopening businesses, how to manage people returning to work and the prospect of the virus.
“We’ve found ways to work safely, and I’m sure that will apply in schools as well,” Henry said.
Where can I read my province’s full school reopening plan?
Here are links to every province and territory’s school reopening plans. Be sure to check with your school board for the most up-to-date information in your area.
Prince Edward Island
Newfoundland and Labrador