WINDSOR, ONT. -- As school boards have unveiled their back-to-school plans, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit released a “tool-kit” with its recommendations for a safe return to the classroom.

The tool-kit outlines eight steps for ensuring safe school operations including assessing risk, reducing spread, staff training and communication plans, monitoring risk, third part food vendors, student transportation, and other considerations.

During Wednesday’s daily COVID-19 briefing, Windsor-Essex Medical Officer of Health Dr. Wajid Ahmed said the best way to protect children and those working in schools is to have and maintain a “low burden of disease” in the community.

“As a member of this community, and a parent of two kids returning to the classroom myself, a safe reopening of our schools is personally important to me as well,” Dr. Ahmed said.

While the health unit's tool kit includes recommendations such as enhanced cleaning, promoting hand hygiene and cohorting, it also includes the need for policies addressing such issues as protecting students from stigma or discrimination around self-monitoring or self-isolation that may require a student to miss class.

WECHU lists considerations when assessing risk such as could class be taught outdoors? Is it possible to reduce class sizes or utilize gyms, libraries, etc. to separate students? And whether students and teachers are well-resourced to accomodate new safety measures.

With Windsor-Essex as the last region to move forward, Ahmed said that gives the region fewer weeks’ worth of information to build on, less time to ensure case counts remain low, and a “greater urgency to get the plan right.”

“It is therefore critical that there will be a safe plan in place to enable our children and all of those who support them in our schools to return to classroom safely,” he said. “There needs to be a balance in how we make this happen, the Windsor Essex County Health Unit supports children going back to school.”

Some of the key safety recommendations included in the kit are:

  • Maintaining physical distancing wherever possible, at least 2 meters for classroom activities.
  • Providing instruction and frequent opportunities for staff, teachers, and children to clean their hands.
  • Encouraging the use of masks or face coverings in all indoor spaces (with appropriate exceptions), even where it might not be mandatory, and providing education to staff and students about how to wear and maintain masks.
  •  That cleaning in schools continue to be top of mind and in line with best-practice recommendations from WECHU including:
  • That the complete picture of health and wellbeing for students and school staff be considered, with the lens of COVID-19 and that this be inclusive of physical, mental, and emotional wellness.
  • Providing clarity with a single, adaptable plan for all school boards.

As far as safe transportation two and from schools, the health unit recommends:

  • Appropriate physical distancing measures on school busses, limiting students to one student or household per seat or those that are part of the child’s social circle.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for bus drivers and monitors.
  • Encouraging masks or face coverings for all students using the bus.
  • Safely distanced walking routes that consider traffic, crossings, and staggered arrival times for students.
  • Drop off zones for students to safely exit vehicles and move into schools without congregating.

“Education is a basic building block of good public health, and we know all of the things that go along with it, including socialization, teamwork, physical activity and the trusted adults in the learning environment. These are all equally important to our children’s development and well-being.”

Ahmed said it is important the community continues to do its part for a safe back-to-school by continuing to follow public safety measures.

The full tool-kit is available on the health unit's website.