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Reopening of Schools

On July 30, 2020, the Ontario Government released its plan to reopen schools for in-class learning in September for the 2020-2021 school year, with enhanced health and safety protocols in place.

All public elementary schools in the province will reopen for in-class learning five days a week. Some secondary schools with lower risk will reopen with a regular daily schedule five days a week, while the majority of secondary schools at higher risk will begin the school year with an adapted, part-time model, alternating between online and in-person learning, with in-person instruction at least 50% of the time. The school boards designated for the adapted learning model are generally those in urban areas with larger schools and larger numbers of students in each grade. These school boards may proceed to conventional in-person learning when the government determines it is safe to do so, in which case advance notice will be given.

Students in all grades will be kept in small cohorts, and parents will have the option of enrolling their children in remote or in-person classes.

Masks will be required for all teachers and staff, as well as all students in grades four to twelve, with exceptions for medical reasons. Mask use will be encouraged for younger students. The province will provide funding for masks and other personal protective equipment (“PPE”) for teachers, as well as for cloth masks for students. Other health and safety protocols which will be implemented include daily screening of students, teachers and staff for symptoms; training of students on hand hygiene; limiting or prohibiting visitors to schools; and record-keeping of seating charts and bus cohorts.

The government also announced over $300 million in funding for public health equipment and protocols, including for procuring masks, supporting testing capacity, hiring nurses to facilitate screening and testing in schools, hiring additional custodians and cleaning supplies, and supporting health and safety training for all teaching staff, as well as additional support for special needs students and for student mental health.

The plan for reopening schools includes protocols to address positive cases of COVID-19 among students, parents, teachers, or other staff, to enable immediate action to identify and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

Resumed Full-Capacity Childcare

Also on July 30, 2020, the Ontario Government announced its plan to allow all childcare centres in the province to operate at full capacity as of September 1, 2020. This includes before- and after-school programs for school aged children. Along with the reopening of schools primarily in-person, this decision aims to provide childcare support to allow parents to return to work.

Existing health and safety protocols put in place when childcare centres first began to reopen will remain in place, and in some cases strengthened. In particular:

  • all childcare staff will be required to wear masks at all times, effective September 1;
  • children and staff will be screened before entering a childcare facility;
  • attendance records will be maintained for rigorous contact tracing and coordination with local public health authorities;
  • frequent hand washing and proper hand hygiene will be ensured for children and staff; and
  • rigid protocols will be established in the event a staff member or child becomes sick or tests positive for COVID-19.

With support from the federal government through the Safe Restart Agreement, the province will also provide additional funding to help childcare operators purchase cleaning supplies and PPE and support staffing needs related to new procedures. The government will also supply face coverings to licensed childcare settings and EarlyON locations.

Takeaways for Employers

The reopening of childcare centres at full capacity and the reopening of schools for in-person learning is generally good news for employers, as many employees with children will be available to attend work without concerns about additional childcare obligations.

However, some high schools will not reopen on a full-time basis, so employers should be prepared to accommodate employees who may still have additional family care obligations because their children are not in school. In addition, some parents may still choose not to enroll their children in in-person classes, even when this is available.

Employers should be mindful of legitimate human rights accommodation needs some employees may have, and any such requests for accommodation should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

See our recent case study from our blog series, Return to Work Case Studies from the Frontlines, for an illustration of how the duty to accommodate family caregiving obligations can play out in the evolving return-to-work context.

This blog is provided as an information service and summary of workplace legal issues. This information is not intended as legal advice.