COVID-19 regulations at Toronto’s public schools will be tightened beyond the province’s recommendations when students return in September.
Guidelines for in-person and virtual learning were shared with Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustees at a meeting on Tuesday. The document outlined requirements for the new school year, which begins for elementary and secondary school students on Sept. 9 for both in-person and virtual classes.
For the most part, guidelines for students will be stricter than recommendations provided by the provincial government.
During lunch breaks and recess, elementary school students will have to remain in specific cohorts and will not eat in cafeterias, instead having to eat in classrooms or other spaces where physical distancing can be maintained.
This is despite the province allowing the use of cafeterias, so long as physical distancing was in place. They also said students did not need to stick to socialising in cohorts.
TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said this was an extension of regulations that were in place in 2020.
“When you’re at recess, there’s a cohort you stay within. So sometimes a cohort could be not only one class but two classes that cohort at the same time and play during recess. It’s really just dependent on each situation,” he said.
Lunch protocols for secondary school students were still being developed, according to the guidelines.
Many protocols have not yet been finalized
In-person assemblies would be cancelled, despite them being allowed under provincial regulations, and would be conducted virtually instead. However, assemblies would be allowed to take place outdoors, with physical distancing in place.
Protocols for health and physical education classes were still being developed by the TDSB, however, provincial guidelines dictate that swimming pools, gymnasiums, changing rooms and indoor weight rooms can reopen with physical distancing in place.
Under TDSB guidelines, singing classes can take place indoors with masks worn and outdoors without masks, with cohorts maintained in both instances. Guidelines for musical instruments had not yet been finalized, but are allowed under provincial rules.
Protocols for extra-curricular activities had not yet been finalized.
School buses can operate at full capacity, with masks worn at all times, assigned seating and the seat behind the driver left empty.
Students must wear masks indoors at all times. Staff must also wear masks, and eye protection as well if students have removed their masks.
Virtual classes at both secondary and elementary schools will be conducted by dedicated teachers. If numbers are too small at a given school, virtual classrooms will be created from a cluster of schools. Students may opt to change between in-person and virtual learning just once, in February 2022.
More than 86 per cent of students will return for in-person classes
The TDSB emailed selection forms to more than 200,000 parents and guardians in early August, to choose whether their children will go back to in-person or virtual learning.
The TDSB said preliminary data showed that about 86 per cent of parents have opted for in-person learning.
However, consultation with high school students, which was conducted in the spring, showed just 12 per cent preferred in-person learning, while 40 per cent said they would prefer virtual classes and 36 per cent preferred in-person, with a virtual option.
Bird said he expects that 86 per cent figure to rise as parents who did not submit the form by the deadline would have their children automatically enrolled in in-person classes.
“It’s still a little bit higher than we had anticipated, but also drastically lower than what we had experienced last year. Last year we had about 80,000 students taking part in virtual learning and this is much lower.”
Bird said he understood there was “anxiety” around returning to school as COVID numbers fluctuated in the province, but said these protocols should provide “confidence”.
“[We’re] making sure that not only are we taking those ministry guidelines, in some cases we’ve gone further than the ministry guidelines. We’re doing everything that we can to keep both our students and staff safe,” Bird said.
Bird said from his perspective, in-person learning was “the best option”.
“I think a lot of kids are missing that. It’s one thing to have that virtual classroom but it really can’t replace that in-person experience.”
He also said the TDSB was working on guidelines to allow field trips to take place again.
Nearby school boards will have less virtual learners
The TDSB’s numbers are roughly in line with its neighbour to the west, the Peel District School Board, where about 18 per cent of elementary students and 20 per cent of high schoolers have opted for virtual learning.
But some other boards are reporting vastly different numbers.
The Limestone District School Board based out of Kingston says only two per cent of students will learn remotely when school resumes.
The Halton District School Board — headquartered in Burlington — and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board both say roughly six per cent of their students have chosen the virtual learning option.