Hamilton students and staff heading back to classrooms on Monday will have to adhere to new and enhanced COVID-19 rules.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced on Wednesday that schools in most public health units across the province would return to in-person learning on Feb. 8 — three days before the previous date provided.
“With the full support of the chief medical officer of health, and with the unanimous support of all local medical officers of health, Ontario is ready to reopen our schools because it is safe,” he said.
Lecce said the Ontario government is “cautiously and gradually” reopening schools. Boards in Toronto, Peel and York public health units will remain closed until Feb. 16.
In a Feb. 3 letter to families, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) said they “expect students returning to school to follow enhanced public health measures at HWDSB buildings.”
Provincewide measures include daily screening for symptoms, physical distancing, hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette and masking — now also outdoors where physical distance cannot be maintained.
“Staff will help students understand why these measures are in place, how they protect us and how to do them all properly,” the letter reads.
At both the public and Catholic boards, transportation, before- and after-school programs and child-care centres will also resume operations on Monday.
Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board chair Pat Daly said boards have done a “great deal of planning” to ensure health and safety of students and staff is “the No. 1 priority.”
“We’re confident,” Daly said. “The data shows that schools are very safe places to be.”
Here’s what’s new for students returning to Hamilton schools:
New provincial health and safety measures for schools include outdoor masking where physical distancing is not possible, as well as mandatory masking for students in Grade 1 to 3.
Masking of the younger students was already a rule at both the Hamilton public and Catholic school boards.
Families are expected to provide masks for children attending in-person classes. The province says it will provide an additional 3.5 million high-quality masks for students “to ensure a backup supply.”
In an email to The Spectator, HWDSB spokesperson Shawn McKillop said all schools have the essential personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary to reopen.
School boards will now have enhanced screening measures for staff, secondary students and visitors.
In a letter to families, the HWDSB said parents and guardians — or students, if over 18 — must “review the COVID-19 school screening daily to monitor for symptoms.”
“As we return after a period of learning from home, when you screen your child on Monday, please monitor for symptoms over the past 14 days,” the letter reads.
According to HWDSB guidance published Feb. 5, secondary students must complete the provincial screening tool at home, and only attend class if they pass — indicated with a green check mark that appears on the screen.
Students are asked to take a screenshot of their results, which will be verified by teachers upon arrival to the classroom. Students who haven’t completed the assessment will be asked to do so on site.
The HWDSB is cautioning staff and families not have students line up outside the classroom door.
“We wish to avoid students gathering in the hallways,” the document reads. “The results can be checked once students are seated if needed.”
At the Catholic board, high school students “will be required to validate that they have completed their daily self-screening during class attendance,” reads a staff memo provided to The Spectator.
Students who have not completed their self-screening will complete it in class “immediately” using their own mobile device or a paper copy provided by the teacher.
There are no changes to screening protocols for elementary students at this time.
Access to targeted asymptomatic testing — both PCR and rapid — will be available to schools and child-care centres across the province with outbreaks or high case counts, or those in communities deemed high priority by public health.
Testing is voluntary and would require parent consent for students under 18.
Testing “will be deployed by the local public health units for students and for staff,” Lecce said.
The Catholic board said in a letter to families that Hamilton public health is “currently developing a plan for Hamilton schools and details will be shared at a later date.”
“We’re talking with the school boards and others about whether that’s something that we would see could be useful here locally,” Richardson said in a Feb. 1 media briefing.
‘Congregating’ before and after school
Lecce said on Wednesday the province is providing “strong, clear guidance” discouraging students from congregating before and after school.
“We know that close contact is the highest risk factor for COVID-19 transmission,” the Catholic board wrote in a letter. “We urge parents and guardians to remind their children about the need to follow physical-distancing guidelines and to refrain from congregating in groups.”
The HWDSB is asking students to avoid gathering and “to head straight home” at the end of the day. The board is also asking parents to “avoid carpooling” with other families.
Funding for school boards
The province announced on Monday $381 million in funding for PPE in schools, air quality and increased ventilation and summer learning for students who have fallen behind.
Hamilton’s public board is set to receive more than $2.7 million for health and safety, which includes PPE and improving air quality and ventilation, as well as nearly $2 million for technological devices to support remote learning. The Catholic board has been allocated about $1.5 million for health and safety and ventilation, and about $1 million for technology supports for remote learners.
Kate McCullough, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator