Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore at a news conference on January 12th, 2022 (YouTube/Province of Ontario)Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore at a news conference on January 12th, 2022 (YouTube/Province of Ontario)

Education Minister outlines new rules as students prepare to return to the classroom

Ontario's education minister says in person school is "essential" as students are preparing to head back to the classroom.

Stephen Lecce addressed the media on Wednesday afternoon to officially announce the province's return to in person learning on Monday.

"We believe so strongly that children need to be in school," Lecce said. "They are essential to the mental and physical health of a child and their academic success."

The province says it has made several improvements that, according to its health experts, will limit COVID-19 exposure in classrooms: Those improvements include

-New daily screening protocols that include an updated list of symptoms that reflect the Omicron variant.

-10 million non-fit tested N95 masks for school and childcare staff. More than 4 million high quality three-ply masks for students. Lecce said supplies for each will be replenished, but there were no details on when that may happen.

-3,000 additional HEPA filters to improve ventilation at 4,800 Ontario schools. HEPA units are required in kindergarten classrooms, according to the ministry.

-Two rapid antigen tests will be sent home with each staff member and each student. "More tests will be available in the coming weeks," Lecce added during his media briefing. However, there were no details on when that may occur. There are 3.9 million rapid tests being shipped to schools.

-Public health units will notify parents and guardians if 30 per cent of staff and students in a cohort are absent from class. There will be no COVID-19 notifications otherwise.

-Retired teachers will be able to spend more time in the classroom to keep staffing levels stable.

"For students, this means they can return to the classroom where they can learn along side their peers, led by their teachers," Lecce said.

"The health and wellbeing of staff and students continues to be a critical priority," said Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore when explaining the measures. "Throughout the pandemic, strong public health measures along with comprehensive interventions by public health units have been extremely effective in supporting schools to operate as safely as possible and as we prepare for Monday we remain focused on the measures that we know work."

"The risk of transmission in schools can never be eliminated, it can be reduced or mitigated though public health measures." Moore added. "Schools will not and have not been shown to be a significant multiplier for communities."

Students haven't been in the classroom for in-person learning since December 17. On that day, there were 3,124 new cases of COVID-19.

Lecce reiterated the province's position that vaccination is "the best defense against COVID-19" and announced the province will host school-based clinics. Details about those clinics have yet to be made available.

However, Moore says COVID-19 vaccines will not be mandated for school attendance, like other vaccines are.

"It is a new vaccine and as a result of that we want greater experience with it before we would ever mandate it," Moore said when asked about mandates.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath accused the Ford government of "coddling anti-vaxxers" when asked about that quote at a news conference later in the day.

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