TORONTO -- Parents and students in Ontario will continue to be offered the option of virtual learning next year, officials confirmed as they outlined their education funding allotments for the 2021-22 year.

Speaking on background at a technical briefing Tuesday, officials said that school boards will be required to continue offering virtual learning next year and promised to release more details at a later date.

It is unclear when parents will have to make decisions on whether their children will begin school in September in-person or remotely.

Schools in Ontario have been closed to in-person learning since mid-April amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in the province. Instead, all students have been participating in remote learning from home.

The government has not yet provided a return date for in-person learning and it is unclear if students will return before the school year is up.

“I think we all have a sense of hope, with the vaccines are really rolling out in the province, there's some light at the end of this darkness as we look forward, but the truth is what we heard is parents want the choice for this September,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce told reporters later in the day.

“What I can confirm to is we are ensuring every board in Ontario will provide that choice of virtual learning experience.”

Lecce added that the government has asked school boards to provide parents with more time to make their choice regarding the stream they want for their children, as some boards have already asked parents to confirm if they will be sending their kids back to the classroom in the fall.

The plan to offer online learning is strictly for the 2021-22 school year for now, Lecce said, however the government is holding consultation on whether the choice should remain an option for students post-pandemic.

The news comes as the government releases its breakdown for education funding for the 2021-22 school year, focusing on mental health and learning recovery as a result of pandemic disruptions.

Online learning

On Tuesday, the government said that school boards will have access to an additional $1.6 billion in funding during the next year in order to continue providing safe in-person learning, including access to up to $507.9 million of the board’s reserve funding.

Included in the new funding is:

• $29.4 million to support operational costs related to ventilation and filter replacement

• $20 million for “learning recovery and renewal”

• $393.6 million for staffing

• $40 million over two years for connectivity related to remote learning technologies.

The government also cited “continued” supports that are available, including funding for personal protective equipment, public health nurses, transportation, mental health and technology. This brings the province’s total funding for public education supports in 2021-22 to about $2 billion.

Officials said that school boards will be directed to budget for half of the resources to support the first part of the school year. This also means that boards will only be able to access half, or one per cent, of the reserved funds being made available to them.

“The government will confirm the use of the remaining resources, if needed for the second half of the year, in the fall, pending vaccine distribution across the province and public health advice,” officials said in a presentation on Tuesday.

A similar amount of reserve funding was made available to school boards last year to be used to reduce class sizes and increase physical distancing. The Toronto District School Board said at the time that using the funds to reduce class sizes would “lead to future financial risks” as that money was already earmarked to support ongoing projects, school budget carryovers and future benefit liabilities.

The province did say Tuesday that there is a two per cent cap this year on reserve funding, meaning that if a school board requires an additional two per cent next year, that money would be provided by the province.

The just over $29 million for ventilation is in addition to a $656.5 million in funding for eligible pandemic-related infrastructure upgrades promised last month, including $113 million from the province and more than $500 million from the federal government.

In total, the province plans to spend about $85.5 million to support learning recovery and renewal—something the government says is necessary due to the disruptions during the pandemic.

Of that funding, $62 million is for 2021 summer learning programs, $20 million is for “re-engaging students and early reading assessment supports” and $3.5 million is for a new learning and innovation fund for teachers.

The re-engagement plans are meant to help students who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and could include dedicating staffing to reach out to individual students and families, working with Indigenous partners and organizers to develop culturally-relevant activities and partnering with community organizations to provide additional support.

The province said that the decline in Kindergarten enrollment and the general disruption to learning for younger children may require an earlier focus on reading and math.

This year’s Grants for Student Needs funding is projected to be about $25.6 billion, which officials say is the largest investment in the province’s history.

Included in the grant is more than $104 million in COVID-19 support, including $15 million for new technology devices and $10 million for more mental health supports.

$80M to provide year-round mental health support

Ontario students struggling with the pressures of the pandemic will have access to year-round mental health support.

CTV News has learned that the $80 million funding includes giving students uninterrupted time with a school counsellor as well as providing the means for school boards to hire up to 1,000 additional mental health workers for the next two years.

Mental health

Sources within the Ministry of Education say students will be able to access the support as they learn from home and can continue on with the mental health help throughout the summer.

A ministry source said in previous years parents were forced to seek support for their children from the community because access to school-based mental health workers ended with the school year.

In a February study by Sick Kids Hospital a “large majority of children” said they experienced mental health struggles as a result of the first wave of the pandemic, arising from social isolation, cancelation of important events and the loss of in-person social interaction.

The study found more than 70 per cent of children aged two to 18 years expressed feeling lonely, overwhelmed, sleepless, worried, sad, irritable, anxious or stressed during the first wave, with isolation posing a significant risk factor.

The $80 million, an amount which wasn’t specified in the 2021-2022 budget unveiled in March, could be used by boards to either hire additional mental health workers, give existing educators new training or help boards collaborate with community mental health providers for students who require intensive therapy.