By MPP Toby Barrett 

Unlike the past, this school year in Ontario will see students working in classrooms while some will be remotely learning from home. 

Many parents, students and teachers have concerns about back to school. However, there are also concerns about not opening. Experts, like Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, as well as doctors from Sick Kids have recommended kids return to school, as routine and structure are extremely important to learning and personal growth. 

Students and their teachers have not been in their classrooms for the past six months. Since March, much planning and work has gone into ensuring Ontario’s staff and students head back to school safely. 

The Ontario Government on a whole, and specifically the Ministry of Education have been working day and night to develop a comprehensive plan to safely reopen schools and to facilitate learning, while also providing flexible options to parents and families. 

When the school closures began, we acted quickly and on March 20th launched the Learn At Home web portal. It was the first of its kind in Ontario’s history—providing key online resources for all subjects and all grades. This portal also provided direct resources for students and families to support well-being and promote positive mental health while learning at home. 

Over summer, students and families were able to take advantage of expanded summer learning opportunities across the province. Over 150,000 students enrolled in credit-bearing secondary school programs, including more than 21,000 students who took Reach Ahead credits. Elementary students participated in literacy and numeracy programs – and students with special education needs and mental health concerns participated in new targeted and transition programs in preparation for this school year. 

At the end of July, we unveiled our provincial school reopening plan. This plan is the most comprehensive in the country, supported by the highest level of provincial government funding nation-wide, and fully informed by leading medical experts to reduce risk and support positive mental health. 

Our government is providing an unprecedented $1.3 billion in critical supports to ensure the safe reopening of our schools. This is in addition to the landmark annual investment of over $25.5 billion in education, which represents an increase of $736 million for the 2020-21 school year over 2019-2020. 

These COVID-19 supports – which are more than any other jurisdiction in the country – will help to implement physical distancing measures, support the hiring of up to 1,300 custodians, adopt enhanced cleaning protocols in schools and on school buses, and hire more teachers to reduce class sizes. 

It will also help public health units hire up to 625 school-focused nurses to provide rapid-response support to schools and boards, and facilitate public health measures, including screening, surveillance testing, tracing and mitigation strategies. 

The federal government has complimented our plan with support to the tune of $381 million. 

We are providing school boards and school authorities with guidance to help them implement prevention measures; maintain accurate records of staff, students and visitors; work with their local public health units; and, take appropriate action when staff, students, or visitors become ill during the school day. 

We want to thank our parents, students, school boards, administrators, educators, trustees, and education system staff for everything they are doing. 

We will continue to keep our children’s best interests in mind as we make our way through this challenging and unprecedented time. 

Toby Barrett is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk