'It felt so normal': School resumes in many Ontario boards

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TORONTO — Teachers and parents shared photos of masked students, tidy classrooms and bustling school yards Tuesday as the third school year affected by the COVID-19 began for many Ontario students.

Classes resumed in boards including the Bluewater District School Board, the District School Board of Niagara and the Halton District School Board. Other boards, including the largest, the Toronto District School Board, are set to start classes on Thursday.

"My girls were so excited to see sidewalks filled with kids walking with backpacks, friends, crossing guards and their teachers today," one Halton Region parent said on Twitter, with a photo of two young girls walking on a tree-lined sidewalk, carrying backpacks.

"Even with masks & screening forms, it felt so normal. It's been a long time coming and they can't wait to get back into school!"

A photo from Aldershot high school in Burlington, Ont., showed clusters of students standing in the middle of the school's football field, under a clear sky and bright September sun.

"Grade 9 Link Orientation! Full of energy and enthusiasm!" the school's principal, Rebecca Newcombe, tweeted alongside the photo.

Silver Creek Public School, an elementary school in Georgetown, Ont., shared a photo of masked students in the school yard lining up behind teachers hoisting up signs.

"We are SO happy to have our students back!" the school wrote.

Ontario's top doctor urged parents to get their eligible children -- and themselves -- vaccinated in order to limit the spread of the virus and the disruption in schools.

"As our kids return to the classroom this week, I know there is a likely a mix of emotions -- excitement, nervousness, and worry," Dr. Kieran Moore said.

"But please know that we are doing everything we can to build the safest environment possible to help them ensure that our children stay in school for the entire academic year."

Vaccination is not mandatory for teachers or eligible students under Ontario's back-to-school plan, which also allows for extracurricular activities and field trips to resume.

The province recently removed 'runny nose' and 'headache' from the list of COVID-19 symptoms that require children to stay home from school and get tested for COVID-19.

Moore said the province made the decision after finding that only one out of 100 children who were tested for COVID-19 because of a runny nose were actually infected.

"The vast majority of them would've had an allergy or rhinovirus, which is very typical this time of year, and it would have been an undue burden on parents and schools and the testing capacity of the province," he said.

He said the list of symptoms can be changed as needed on a local basis, however.

"If a community has an increased risk of COVID-19, that symptom list can be modified to be more extensive. But we think it's a reasonable list for all communities in Ontario at present that will minimize the burden of testing for parents and children and keep children in the classroom."

Moore nonetheless urged parents whose children have a runny nose to keep them home until their condition improves.

Meanwhile, Ontario's education minister, Stephen Lecce, touted the province's investments in school ventilation Tuesday as he marked the return to in-person or remote learning for many students.

"Our cautious plan is designed to minimize disruption and maximize safety -- with a focus on ventilation improvements -- so that your children can continue learning throughout the year," Lecce said in a statement.

He also urged students to "remain vigilant" in the face of the ongoing health crisis.

The province's Ministry of Education has sent guidelines to schools in a bid to slow the spread of the virus, which include requirements that staff and students self-screen for COVID-19 each day and wear masks indoors.

The ministry has also required that all boards offer a remote learning option for students who don't feel comfortable in the classroom due to the pandemic.

Last month, the Ontario government announced all schools without mechanical ventilation systems would be equipped with a standalone HEPA unit for the return to classes.

At the time, Lecce said about 70 per cent of schools in the province already had mechanical ventilation. Some 50,000 HEPA units were in use in facilities without mechanical ventilation, with an additional $25 million provided to buy enough for every classroom and other learning spaces such as gyms and libraries, he said.

Junior and senior kindergarten classes would also get a HEPA unit regardless of the school's ventilation system, because kids of that age aren't required to wear masks in schools, he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2021.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press

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