As the end of another turbulent pandemic school year nears, education and public health officials continue to prepare for what would be a brief return to the classroom in June — while also looking ahead to welcoming students for in-class learning in September.
According to the Ontario government's announcement of its Three-Step Roadmap to Safely Reopen the Province, public and private elementary and secondary schools in the province will continue to operate under teacher-led remote learning.
Thursday, health officials from the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit explained, they are, in partnership with local educators, preparing for all possible directives from the province on schools.
"We would love to see students back in school — when it is safe to do so — and when the province feels it is safe to do so," said Shannon Mantha, Executive Director of Clinical Services and Chief Nursing Officer at the Health Unit.
Mantha acknowledged there is still uncertainty surrounding a return to the classroom in the next month.
"We still don't know," she said. "We have been in communication with the province...although we are not privy to any plans to reopen schools...Schools can reopen once the province decides the risk of spread is low."
Despite the desire for an imminent safe return for students — given the time constraints — there must be a point at which the focus shifts to a return to the classroom in September.
Although Mantha advised it is "too early to shift the focus" to the fall exclusively, "planning is already underway at the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education levels, engaging with local health units and local boards for the return in September. The youth vaccination strategy is part of that planning process. We are concurrently looking at both options and planning for that."
According to Ontario's Roadmap to Reopen announcement, "Data will be assessed on an ongoing basis and medical experts, including the Chief Medical Officer of Health, and other health officials will be consulted to determine if it may be safe to resume in-person learning."
Mantha noted community rates of transmission are an important determinant when it comes to in-person learning. Therefore, the Health Unit continues to stress how important it is to follow the public health measures in place.
Dr. Jim Chirico, the district's Medical Officer of Health lauded the work of the school boards in keeping their communities safe.
"We are working very closely," with the school boards said Chirico during the Health Unit's weekly media availability. He noted there have been no school outbreaks, to date. "They have done a superb job and it's been a collaborative effort to ensure that when we do open schools it will be as safe as possible."
Ontario's Roadmap to Reopen is billed as a "three-step plan to safely and cautiously reopen the province and gradually lift public health measures based on the province-wide vaccination rate and improvements in key public health and health care indicators," including opening up, as soon as Saturday, some outdoor recreational amenities with restrictions — such as physical distancing — in place.