School Board Update

Ontario Releases COVID-19 Health and Safety Guidance for Schools

School Board Update

Ontario Releases COVID-19 Health and Safety Guidance for Schools

Date: August 4, 2021

On August 3, 2021, the Ministry of Education (MOE) released its COVID-19: Health, Safety and Operational Guidance for Schools (2021-2022) (Direction), which is its plan for return to school in September.

The Direction was approved by the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health for the purpose of regulations made under the Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act, 2020 (Act). It applies to schools (publicly funded and private) where regulations made under the Act require them to operate in accordance with a return to school direction in order to open. School boards should therefore ensure that they continue to review and comply with the Act and any other applicable legislation. 

In this School Board Update, we highlight some of the more pertinent elements of the Direction, as well as some key changes from the previous school year.

In-Person and Remote Learning

The Direction states that students will attend in-person learning daily for the full school day (five instructional hours) in elementary and secondary schools across the province. Remote learning will also remain an option.

Elementary Schools

Elementary school students in kindergarten through Grade 8 will attend school five days per week, with 300 minutes of instruction per day, remaining in one cohort for the full day. Cohorted classes will stay together and with one teacher, where possible. Students may be placed into small groups (for example, special education support, English-language learning) with students from other cohorts. Students may use common spaces (for example, cafeterias and libraries).

Secondary Schools

For the fall semester, school boards have been instructed to timetable students with no more than two courses at a time in order to preserve the option of reverting to more restrictive measures, if needed. Some school boards may implement an alternating week or “modified semester” model (Week 1: Course A/Course B, Week 2: Course C/Course D), with support from their local health unit. Exceptions may be made for small schools where contacts can be limited by cohorting grades.

Remote Learning

Remote learning remains an option for parents even as school boards are planning for students to return to in-person learning. School boards will be required to continue to provide students learning remotely with 300 minutes of learning opportunities and adhere to requirements outlined in Policy/Program Memorandum No. 164.


The Direction reiterates that medical officers of health in local public health units also have statutory powers under the Health Protection and Promotion Act, which they may use to address outbreaks or risks of COVID-19 transmission in schools. It will therefore be critical for school boards to maintain contact and relationships with their local PHU.


The province will continue to provide a screening tool for use by all school boards and may update this throughout the school year. Local public health units may designate a commensurate or more restrictive screening tool for local use.

All staff and students who are experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 as identified in the screening tool must not attend school and should follow the guidance provided in the screening tool, which may include seeking appropriate medical attention as required, and/or getting tested for COVID-19.

School boards are expected to have a process in place to implement on-site confirmation of self-screening of individuals prior to or upon their arrival at school, if directed to do so.


Students in Grades 1 to 12 are required to wear properly fitted non-medical or cloth masks indoors in school, including in hallways and during classes, as well as on school vehicles. Masks may be temporarily removed indoors with a minimum distance of two metres maintained between cohorts and as much distancing as possible within a cohort for the following activities:

  • engaging in low-contact physical activity (health and physical education)
  • consuming food or drink (cafeteria use and lunch protocols)

Students are not required to wear masks outdoors, but distancing should be encouraged between cohorts as much as possible. Students in kindergarten are encouraged but not required to wear non-medical or cloth masks in indoor spaces, as well as on school vehicles.

Medical masks (surgical/procedural) are required to be worn by school staff and visitors indoors in school, including in hallways and during classes. Staff are not required to wear medical masks outdoors. Staff must maintain at least two metres distance from others when consuming food/drinks.


School boards are expected to continue optimizing air quality in classrooms and learning environments through improving ventilation and/or filtration. This is a key element in the multiple protective strategies to support healthy and safe learning environments for students and staff. As a result, boards can continue to expect health and safety concerns being raised by unions and employees and/or possible work refusals.

What is New

Inclement Weather Plan

School boards are required to develop inclement weather plans and policies which may include pivoting to remote learning. These plans should include an approach for heat days.


The Direction states that school boards are encouraged to work with local public health units to reach out to families to promote vaccination.

Mental Health

Student mental health and well-being is to be considered a top priority. School boards should implement a tiered approach to mental health that will support all students and target intensive help to those who have been most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Planning should include remote delivery of mental health services using virtual care platforms, if needed.

A key priority of recovery is to make sure that all children return to school. School boards are directed to focus on reaching marginalized children to actively monitor their attendance and engagement. It is advised that remedial programs also target students who experience greater barriers to access, and when supports are provided, school boards must work to prioritize comprehensive supports that acknowledge mental health and well-being. School boards should focus on understanding the needs of students and collaborating with community partners to deliver culturally relevant supports for students. 

In addition, School Mental Health Ontario, the Ministry of Education’s student mental health implementation partner, is providing school boards with comprehensive back-to-school resources. School board mental health leaders are able to customize the resources to address local priorities when providing professional learning to educators and other school staff prior to the return to school and during the upcoming school year.

Student Supports

School boards will need to consider additional planning and transition time for students with special education needs to support a smooth transition. The Direction includes an entire section focused on the obligations of school boards to provide supports to students with special education needs.

Fire Drills

For the 2021-2022 school year, school boards must plan for procedures to conduct fire drills aligned with public health advice. The Direction emphasizes a continued flexible and balanced approach when conducting fire drills in schools, including private schools.

What is Now Permitted

Students do not need to stay within their cohort during recess and breaks outdoors, but distancing should be encouraged between cohorts as much as possible. Shared materials outdoors are permitted, with appropriate hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette.

Shared homerooms, libraries (for group and individual use, for example, drop-in study time, etc.) and computer/technology labs are permitted. Use of lockers/cubbies is permitted. When different cohorts interact in shared indoor spaces, masking and as much distancing as possible should be maintained between cohorts. Students may eat together—outdoors, without distancing, and indoors, with a minimum distance of two metres maintained between cohorts and as much distancing as possible within a cohort.

Use of cafeterias is permitted with capacity limits for cafeterias to be established to enable two metres’ distancing between cohorts, and as much distancing as possible within cohorts. Where this is not possible, school boards are encouraged to work with their local PHUs to develop a plan that reduces the number of students and cohorts eating in proximity to each other as much as possible.

School assemblies or other student/school gatherings are permitted and should follow the relevant provincial requirements under the Act.

Programs such as cooperative education, music, health and physical education, literacy, adult and continuing education are permitted in accordance with relevant protocols.

Field trips, EQAO testing and community involvement graduation requirements are also permitted in accordance with relevant protocols.

Clubs, activities, sport teams, bands (without wind instruments) and extra-curriculars are permitted. Cohorts may interact outdoors with physical distancing encouraged, and indoors with masking and appropriate physical distancing. Measures for inter-school sport activities will need to follow the requirements in the health and physical education section for schools.

Community use of schools is permitted provided activities are aligned with public health guidance and direction. School boards that choose to resume community use of schools should ensure that they are complying with the applicable provincial requirements under the Act.

Managing COVID-19

The MOE is working on a section for managing COVID-19 and will build on the “Operational guidance: COVID-19 management in schools” from the 2020-21 school year. This section is intended to support schools, school boards and school authorities in the safe reopening and operation of schools for the 2021-22 school year. This section will also apply to child care centres as well as before- and after-school programs that operate within schools. This section will also include expectations for the reporting of COVID-19 cases by schools and school boards to the Ministry of Education.

Ongoing Review

The Direction will be re-evaluated by the government on a regular basis and, where required, updated based on public health advice throughout the 2021-22 school year. The government will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation, including ongoing risks related to variants of concern (VOCs), and alignment with broader provincial guidance and direction. The Ministry will continue to work with the Chief Medical Officer of Health and local public health units (PHUs) to assess key measures to inform and update provincial guidance and direction, including lifting measures when appropriate. Local public health units may require additional or enhanced health and safety measures based on local experience and data. 

If you require further information about the Direction, please contact your regular Hicks Morley lawyer.

The article in this client update provides general information and should not be relied on as legal advice or opinion. This publication is copyrighted by Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP and may not be photocopied or reproduced in any form, in whole or in part, without the express permission of Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP. ©