TORONTO — Ontario's science advisory table is recommending a much different school year, with the return of extracurriculars, loosening masking, distancing and cohorting rules when risk is low, and closing schools only in catastrophic scenarios.
"The physical, emotional, and developmental health of children and youth has been deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions placed on schools,” the experts write in a brief published Monday.
"School closures, or transition to an online learning model, should not be used as a public health measure for pandemic control."
There is "increasing evidence" that closing schools and cancelling extracurriculars has had negative impacts on kids’ physical and mental health, they write. Ontario has had the longest interruption to in-person classes in Canada.
A spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government's back-to-school plan - expected to be announced in the next few weeks - will work to ensure a more normal in-class learning experience, including reinstating clubs, sports, and extra-curriculars.
"We will continue to work with Ontario’s chief medical officer of health to get all students back to in-person learning this September, supported by rising vaccine rates and $1.6 billion in resources to continue to keep schools safe."
Given high vaccination rates in the province, the science table expects low levels of transmission of the virus and hospitalizations in the fall.
The brief lays out low-, moderate- and high-risk scenarios. When the risk is considered low – hospitalizations are "limited and sporadic" – then masking, distancing and cohorting rules could be relaxed, they say.
Masks could be optional if infection rates and severe disease remain low, but masking guidance in schools should follow community guidance for indoor settings, the experts write. Outdoor masking isn't recommended except when community transmission is high and distancing isn't possible.
Neither distancing nor cohorting is recommended in the low-risk scenario.
But when the risk increases, cohorting and masking could return for younger children - who find it more difficult to distance - while masking and distancing are preferred strategies for older students, since cohorting makes schooling, socializing and extra-curricular activities more difficult.
Proper hand washing, having staff and students stay home when sick, upgrading indoor air quality systems, and enhanced cleaning measures should be considered permanent measures, they say.
But even when the risk is high – when hospitalizations from COVID-19 are high and continuing to rise – schools should stay open, the experts urge, with prioritized testing and tracing and vaccination.
"School closures and transitions to remote learning should only be considered under a catastrophic scenario, based on the recommendation of the chief medical officer of health, when there is a clear signal of harm (morbidity and/or mortality) to children or the community at large that is directly attributable to children attending school for in-person learning despite the use of all available mitigation strategies," the science advisers say.
The loss of extra-curricular activities have had a "substantial impact" on kids' physical and mental health, the experts say, and those should resume even in high-risk scenarios. Activities such as choir and sports could take place outside, and rapid antigen screen testing could be used to mitigate risk, they write in the brief.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2021.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press