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Back to school: A look at the COVID-19 rules in place across provinces, territories

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From virtual classes to daily COVID-19 checks and mandatory masks, children across Canada have weathered enormous changes in their learning since schooling was disrupted in March 2020. 

Over the course of seven waves and numerous variants and subvariants, more than five million elementary and high school students have also had to grapple with getting sick or loved ones hit by the virus.

As they gear up to enter what will be their fourth academic year with the pandemic, public health officials are recommending that children across the country get their COVID-19 vaccines as the first line of defence and also say that the choice to wear a mask will be supported and should be respected.

What will the new 2022-2023 school term look like? We take a look at what the coming school year will be like by province and territory.

BRITISH COLUMBIA

Following the emergence of Omicron, the province transitioned to established protocols for other circulating viral illnesses, which includes “self-management.” The province said students and staff will be in the classroom full time for the 2022-2023 school year. The following are guidelines set by the province as of August 25, 2022.

Masks and other safety guidelines: Masks are optional. Health officials encourage everyone to get vaccinated, stay home when sick, and check regularly for symptoms of illness to make sure children do not attend school while sick. If a student or staff member develops symptoms at school, they will be separated from other students or staff and sent home. The areas used by the individual will be cleaned and disinfected.

When to stay home: Students and staff are asked to stay home if they are sick or have any symptoms of illness. The latest update by the province says that given the high immunization rates in the province along with treatment options for those at higher risk of serious disease, COVID-19 can now be managed like other respiratory infections. For those with mild COVID-19 symptoms and where testing is not recommended, the province recommends individuals stay home until they feel well enough to return to regular activities. For those who test positive and are fully vaccinated, they should isolate until at least five days have passed since the start of symptoms or test date, they no longer have a fever, and their symptoms have improved.  

School activities: All music, sports, clubs, and other extracurricular activities are allowed, and there are no capacity limits for assemblies and events.

Virtual school: Online classes are offered.

ALBERTA

The province, which is providing an additional $10 million for the coming school year to support additional interventions, lifted all remaining mandatory public health protocols on June 14. 

Masks and other safety guidelines: Wearing a mask and self-isolation are no longer mandatory outside of health facilities. Recommendations for isolation include isolating for five days from the start of symptoms and wearing a mask for five days after while in indoors spaces with others.

What qualifies as an outbreak: According to the Edmonton school board, reporting changes by the province mean getting an accurate picture of case numbers in schools will be difficult. Some boards, such as the Edmonton one, will report the percentage of students who self-report their absence as a result of illness.

When to stay home: According to the Edmonton school board, students should stay home when sick, but they are no longer required to use the province’s daily health checklist. Children who become sick at school will be sent home.

Virtual school: Online learning will be available with specific school boards throughout the province. An online learning directory breaks down what kind of programs are offered in different regions and school boards across the province.

SASKATCHEWAN

The province is extending its Interim Provincial Education Plan, aimed at supporting students during the pandemic, for the coming school year. The plan has three main priorities that focus on mental health support for students and staff, support for reading for students between Grade 1 and 5, and support for learning opportunities in literacy and math.

Previously, different school boards came up with their own guidelines and requirements based on recommendations from local public health officials, but in February, the province directed all school divisions to follow government instructions, including dropping mandatory mask rules beginning in March. There are currently no public health orders relating to COVID-19 in effect.

Masks and other safety guidelines: As of the end of August, COVID-19 vaccine boosters are available for children aged five to 11.

What qualifies as an outbreak: Outbreaks related to educational settings will no longer be investigated, but local public health authorities will continue to provide support with transmission mitigation planning and standard surveillance measures.

MANITOBA

The province has removed public health orders, and provincial dashboards have been phased out, but preventative measures are still recommended, including getting vaccinated, staying home when sick, and washing hands or using hand sanitizer. The province cautioned that schools should be prepared for future scenarios that could require reinstating public health orders and protective measures.

Masks and other safety guidelines: According to the province’s 2022-2023 back-to -school document, notification letters will no longer be issued at this time. Individual choices regarding mask wearing should be respected. School officials are asked to emphasize the need for individuals to get vaccinated and boosted as soon as they are eligible, monitor and screen for COVID-19 symptoms and stay home when sick.

When to stay home: As of April 5, 2022, the province says individuals with COVID-19 symptoms should stay home and notify the school. Individuals should isolate for five days after symptoms start, until they have no fever and other symptoms have improved. A well-fitted mask should also be worn for 10 days if they must make contact with others while sick.

Virtual school: While the province says in-class learning is best and is a priority, there will be remote learning support for teachers and students “when and where needed.”

ONTARIO

The province released a plan in late July outlining how to help students “catch up” from the pandemic. This included investing in enhanced tutoring support programs focused on math and reading to fill in any learning gaps, and expanded support for mental health.

Masks and other safety guidelines: Mask requirements were lifted in the spring and the province made no indication there will be any changes to those policies this coming fall. On Aug. 31, the province’s chief health officer announced recommendations that masks should be worn for about 10 days if an individual has been sick, regardless if it is COVID-19 or not, in order to help decrease the risk of all respiratory viruses.

The province said it would continue “appropriate and up to date” health and safety measures, including ventilation improvements, frequent hand washing and enhanced cleaning measures. It also plans to continue handing out rapid tests to schools until the end of the calendar year.

What qualifies as an outbreak: Starting June 15, school boards will no longer be expected to report absences and closures to the province’s Absence Reporting Tool. There is no update on whether absence rates and school closures published on the province’s website will continue in the fall.

When to stay home: Ontario is taking an “all respiratory virus approach” to an expected rise in illnesses this fall. Individuals who feel ill should isolate while symptomatic and return to school 24 hours after symptoms are gone.

School activities: Extracurricular activities like sports, band, field trips are expected to resume.

Virtual school: Remote learning will remain an option for families who wish to continue with online classes, but the province emphasized that its focus was on the return to in-person learning.

QUEBEC

The province says its guidelines for the 2022-2023 academic year, last updated Aug. 24, 2022, are based on the current health and vaccination situation in the population.

Masks and other safety guidelines: Booster doses for vulnerable children aged five to 11 will be available and recommended as of the first week of school. Masks are no longer required at school or when using school transportation, but can be provided to school boards and schools by request. Rapid screening tests will also be provided at schools in order to quickly test students who develop symptoms during the school day. Those under the age of 14 cannot be tested without parental consent, however. The tests will also be distributed in schools for at-home testing. No additional guidelines, recommendations, or contingency plans are provided for visitor access, physical distancing, or if COVID-19 is circulating within the school.

School Activities: There are no restrictions on extracurricular activities, assemblies or field trips.

When to stay home: Individuals with a fever should self-isolate for 24 hours until the fever is gone, regardless of the cause. If an individual has COVID-19, they should self-isolate for at least five days from the onset of symptoms or from when the individual tested positive (when no other symptoms are present). For those who already contracted COVID-19 within the previous two months and have COVID-19 symptoms, the province says self-isolation is not necessary again, but highly recommends wearing a mask around others and keeping away from those who are vulnerable, until the symptoms have resolved.

NEW BRUNSWICK 

As of Aug. 18, 2022, there was no current information regarding COVID-19 on the province’s education website. The following information is based on guidelines for the public as of March 10, when the province announced measures for “living with COVID-19”.

Masks and other safety guidelines: Masks are no longer required in indoor public spaces.

When to stay home: Isolation is no longer required among the general public, but individuals who are sick are encouraged to stay home.

NOVA SCOTIA

Nova Scotia has also entered a “living with COVID-19” phase. In an update on Aug. 24, 2022, the province announced that schools would return to normal this fall. Online support for math, reading, and writing will be available.

Masks and other safety guidelines: Students are encouraged to get vaccinated, stay home if they feel sick, and wash their hands or use hand sanitizer. The province said mask wearing should be accepted in schools for those who wish to continue wearing them. Hand sanitizers are available and masks will be provided for those who ask.

School activities: Small-group instruction, bands, clubs, sports, field trips will a resume.

When to stay home: Staff and students are asked to monitor for symptoms and stay home if they are sick and have symptoms.

PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND

Like other provinces, P.E.I.is transitioning to “living with COVID-19.” According to the province’s back-to-school guidance FAQ dated May 26, 2022, physical distancing and cohorting are no longer a requirement. Rapid tests will be available in schools for families and individuals who wish to continue testing. 

Masks and other safety guidelines: COVID-19 booster shots are recommended this fall for children aged five to 11. Masks are not required at school or on buses, but are recommended for staff who work with students who are at higher risk. People are also encouraged to mask if they wish, and masks will be supplied and rapid tests for parents will be made available in schools.

When to stay home: Individuals should stay home and isolate themselves if they test positive or have symptoms.

School activities: All school activities including sports, competitions and extracurriculars can occur as long as they follow current public health guidelines. School gatherings and events are also permitted without physical distancing or capacity limits.

NEWFOUNDLAND

Newfoundland benefits from having the highest rates of vaccination in the country, with at least 93 per cent of those between the ages of 12 and 19 fully vaccinated. It also has one of the highest vaccination rates in Canada for children between the ages of 5 and 11. There are no updated guidelines for fall 2022. The following is the latest information available.

Masks and other safety guidelines: Masks are no longer required in public indoor spaces, but are strongly recommended. Parents are asked to continue screening their children every day for symptoms.

When to stay home: Students and staff are asked to stay home if they are sick or experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

YUKON

Schools are expected to return to near-normal operations. The following guidelines are based on the territory’s education pandemic recovery plan for 2022-2024 a back-to-school statement from Yukon’s chief medical officer and new guidelines issued for the 2022-2023 school year..

Masks and other safety guidelines: The territory strongly recommends individuals stay home when sick, be vaccinated and wear a mask to help keep schools safe. Masks are optional, but staff and students choosing to wear one will be supported and respected. Physical distancing is also no longer required. The territory says students and staff should continue to practice good hand and respiratory hygiene. Nearly 400 HEPA air purifiers were deployed to all schools in the territory, with ventilation systems cleaned and inspected, according to the province.

When to stay home: Yukon has issued guidance for when a child can go to school regardless of their vaccination status, including staying home when they have a key symptoms like fever and cough. Staff and parents should continue to screen for symptoms. Anyone exhibiting symptoms should stay home.

NORTHWEST TERRITORIES

Public health orders have ended in the territory. The territory says it is up to education bodies to add any additional safety measures for their schools such as masks, cohorting, and other restrictions. The following is based on reopening guidelines for 2022 to 2023.

Masks and other safety guidelines: Staff and students can wear a mask if they choose. Frequent hand washing, disinfecting high-touch surfaces, and giving people space when asked are encouraged, while sharing school supplies, food and drinks are discouraged. Enhanced HVAC system measures are still in place in schools as authorities work to purchase indoor air purifier units for schools.

When to stay home: The territory recommends that anyone who tests positive stay home and reduce the number of people they contact, especially those who are more vulnerable to severe illness.

NUNAVUT

The territory has lifted all public health orders and has outlined a path to living with COVID-19. In June, the government announced funding to improve the air quality at 45 schools across the territory, including cleaning more than 130 air handling units and ducts, and replacing more than 900 filters.

Masks and other safety guidelines: Masks are no longer required for school.

When to stay home: Isolation is no longer necessary, but those who are sick or test positive are encouraged to stay home for seven days if they are fully vaccinated, and 10 if they are not.

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COVID-19 CONCERNS?

As a parent, do you have any concerns about COVID-19 transmission as your child returns to school? Are you planning to vaccinate your children before classes resume or enrol them in virtual learning?

Share your story by emailing us at dotcom@bellmedia.ca, and include your name and location. Your comments may be used in a CTVNews.ca story.

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