TORONTO -- A date and plan for reopening schools for in-person instruction in more urban areas of Ontario outside of the province’s COVID-19 hotspots – such as Durham, Halton, Waterloo and Ottawa ­– could come soon.

As about 100,000 students in rural areas including Grey-Bruce, Kingston and Peterborough returned to class on Monday, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce told CP24 on Monday morning that a decision for areas outside of Toronto, Peel, York, Hamilton and Windsor-Essex could be imminent.

“We are going to communicate over the coming week where and when schools can reopen but the decision is made on the advice of the chief medical officer of health,” Lecce said.

Late Monday night, Lecce’s office said that he meant to say “over the coming weeks” rather than “the coming week.”

But he cautioned developments with the presence of the UK coronavirus variant B.1.1.7 and general progress in reducing community spread of the virus through the state of emergency measures could change the timeline.

“We have to be nimble, but the commitment is to get them back with enhanced safety measures to keep them safe,” he said.

The province has ordered that schools in Toronto, Peel, York, Hamilton and Windsor-Essex not reopen for in-class instruction before Feb. 10.

Schools in the north resumed in-class operation on Jan. 11, while schools throughout the province conducted class for special needs students throughout the month in all areas.

This leaves school boards (and parents) in a number of major urban centres including London, Guelph, Ottawa, Simcoe-Muskoka and Niagara without a clear idea of when schools will resume.

“The Chief Medical Officer of Health is going to make that determination as soon as is humanly possible,” Lecce said.

“As soon as we get it at the cabinet table – parents will know our decision.”

When schools do resume, more students will be required to wear masks at all times.

In addition, Lecce said a surveillance testing program will see “thousands” of pupils and staff members receive tests each week.

Surveillance testing was promised by the Ford government in the summer of 2020 but did not get underway until December, where it quickly revealed some schools in Toronto and Windsor were showing sustained asymptomatic transmission of coronavirus.

For this school year, the Ford government spent more than $460 million bolstering schools in preparation for COVID-19, also accepting $381 million in help from Ottawa and allowing school boards to dip into $500 million in existing reserve funds to help schools with the impact of the virus.

They also plan to use an additional $381 million in funds from the federal government earmarked for next school year to help school boards improve ventilation in classrooms.

In the meantime, the Ministry of Education has expanded eligibility for free childcare to include truckers, farmers, grocery and pharmacy workers and additional education staff required to be in schools.

Lecce said the move impacts approximately 500,000 working parents in the province.