TORONTO -- Teachers’ unions in Ontario say they are concerned about the lack of cohorting and the missing guidance on how to handle a COVID-19 outbreak in the province’s newly released back-to-school plans for the fall.

On Tuesday, the Progressive Conservative government released a 26-page document outlining what classrooms are going to look like in September.

The document indicated that masking would still be mandated indoors for most students and that nearly all extracurricular activities would resume.

“To me, it looks like a plan where we're heading back to as normal as we can…with some restrictions in place,” Karen Littlewood, President of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), said.

The province is pushing for a return to in-person learning, saying that students in both elementary and secondary schools will be expected to attend class five days per week. The option to continue learning virtually remains with parents.

Classroom sizes have not changed.

Littlewood said that while the plan was “positive" overall, there were concerns about cohorting.

High school students will be mostly cohorted and will take up to two courses at a time, however they are still allowed to leave school property during lunch hour and are able to used shared spaces such as libraries, computer libraries, and attend assemblies.

When taking part in school sports and clubs, cohorts are allowed to interact while maintaining physical distance. Masking is not mandatory while playing high-contact sports outdoors.

“That's a big concern,” Littlewood said when talking about the lack of cohorting. “I look at transportation and it says that the buses can be full. So I travel with people—and sometimes also different schools who traveled together on a bus—that's not a cohort at all.”

Littlewood added that some teachers have also been told that they can go from class-to-class, and even to different schools for specialized courses.

“We know that this is an airborne disease or virus, so just still lots and lots of questions,” she said.

Classroom

The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) echoed that concern, saying the back-to-school plan does not do enough to curb the spread of COVID-19 given the risks of the Delta variant and the fact that children under the age of 12 cannot yet get the vaccine.

“It’s clear that Premier (Doug) Ford and Minister (Stephen) Lecce are relying on vaccinations alone to provide a safe school reopening and a return to extracurriculars. What they seem to have forgotten is that Ontarians remain at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19, and most elementary children are ineligible for vaccines,” ETFO President Sam Hammond said in a statement.

“Because of this government’s poor decision-making, students in Ontario lost more opportunities to learn in person than any other students in Canada. Educators want schools to stay open all year even as we combat the variants we know will threaten reopening and recovery for some time. The Ford government’s consistent and reckless disregard for the seriousness of this pandemic will not keep students, staff and their families safe.”

In a news release, the ETFO called for smaller class sizes as well as cohorting “that genuinely limits interaction.”

Both unions acknowledged that the plan, which the Ontario government promised would be “comprehensive,” still lacked the answers to basic questions around vaccination and the handling of COVID-19 outbreaks in schools.

The plan says that school boards need to be prepared to pivot in the event that the pandemic gets worse—however no metrics or details were provided. That section says the information is still "forthcoming” and will build on the previous school year.

“What are the metrics and what is going to happen if there is an outbreak and what constitutes an outbreak, is it two cases or four cases? If you can deem that they're related to each other, is that still an outbreak?” Littlewood said.

“The plan makes reference to if we need to put stricter measures in place but it doesn't say what those parameters are, where we would need those stricter measures. That would be really helpful. People are really good at following goals and having metrics in place so they know what to look for.”

Littlewood added that the sooner school boards get these details, the better.

Neither Premier Doug Ford, nor Education Minister Stephen Lecce, made themselves available for comment on Tuesday. A news release was also not issued along with the back-to-school plan.

No additional funding commitment was released either, although Lecce is expected to provide further details on Wednesday.

Ontario’s official opposition said that Ford’s plan is “rolling the dice with our kids’ wellbeing,” as it doesn’t include smaller class sizes or an increase in funding for ventilation.

“This plan is months late and millions of dollars short — and it’s clearly taking risks with our kids,” NDP Education critic Marit Stiles said in a statement.

“If we lower the risk of outbreaks and exposures, we prevent kids from having to be sent home again. Instead, Ford’s decided to save a buck on the backs of students, teachers, education workers, families, and our province’s progress in the fight against COVID-19. He’s again relying on painful remote learning, and frustrating quadmesters.”

The Green Party added that the plan’s failure to cut class sizes, implement asymptomatic testing and provide details on outbreak management was “a missed opportunity.”

“We fear this approach will result in more school closures down the line. And that’s not ok. Doug Ford is setting us up for failure. Our kids deserve better,” Deputy Leader Abhijeet Manay said.

The Ontario Liberals added that the plan “far too little, far too late.”

At a news conference held Tuesday afternoon, Ontario Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kieran Moore touted the plan and said that he does not anticipate having to order schools to close next year.

“I really can't envision or see any closure of any schools in Ontario, or colleges or universities. We must maintain them open going forward,” he said.

“I think we have to normalize COVID-19 for the schools and have an approach that's prudent and that's cautious but recognizes that yes we're going to have a rise in cases but we are going to adhere to the best practices to minimize the spread and to keep our communities safe.”