Comparisons of back-to-school across Canada

All jurisdictions in Canada are working on reopening strategies for K-12 schools. The most up-to-date medical advice we are receiving is that children under the age of 10 are less likely to have severe physical health outcomes, and a safe return to school will be beneficial for the mental health of a majority of children (and their parents).

The Public Health Agency of Canada does warn that transmission of the virus in children is still not well understood at this time and recommendations could change.

Schools in Denmark and some Quebec communities were reopened at the end of May. Both of these jurisdictions were able to gather intelligence on best practices for reopening, however, Quebec schools only saw around a quarter of regular attendance numbers.

Canadian provinces do not differ substantially in their recommendations but implementation may vary both within and between provinces as some governments have left more decisions to individual public school boards or divisions.

As parents also make decisions to use online learning, homeschooling, or make moves to private schools, many schools won’t know what implementation looks like until classes resume.


The government has set masking requirements, allocated funding, and left the rest of the decision-making with individual school divisions. Some schools in the province are beginning with a staggered entry, ranging from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, halving student attendance by last names. Each division is responsible for setting their own guidelines. Parents should look to their child’s school website specifically for the most accurate information.

Alberta has a list of safety measures and three scenarios for school re-opening. Schools are currently working under Scenario 1, “near normal” with full-time classes and enhanced safety measures. Scenario 2 is part-time classes blended with at-home learning and Scenario 3 is full-time at-home learning where all classes have been cancelled. Each division is responsible for developing plans for each scenario and parents should look for the information on their child’s school website.

Recommendations are provided for “cohorting where possible”, staggering breaks and lunches, physically distancing or arranging desks so students are not facing one another, postponing field trips and activities where physical distancing is difficult, including activities consisting of “singing, cheering or shouting or playing wind instruments”.

The government also announced $120 million in funding for additional resources and increased capital funds by $250 million. The 2019 budget, released in October, saw K-12 public schools in Alberta facing around $70 million in cuts, and many boards used maintenance funding for classrooms. The true increase in funding for the 2020-21 school year is somewhat difficult to ascertain but looks to be around $45 million for additional needs during the pandemic and a potential replacement of funding to 2018-19 levels.

Parents and teachers in Airdrie, AB, as well as the Alberta Teacher’s Association, have called for a better plan.

British Columbia

B.C. has delayed the start of school to September 10 and mandated placing students and staff into “learning groups” to reduce contact. Masks will not be mandatory.

The government has also initiated a “K-12 education restart steering committee and working groups (made up of) education partners and health experts (who) are working to create operational guidelines for the health and safety of teachers, staff, and students,” according to The Georgia Straight.

K-12 schools in B.C. received $161 million increase in 2019-20 for operations and will see an additional $45.6 million for safety measures in 2020-21.

Parents and teachers have called for a better plan.


The province of Saskatchewan is setting a start date of September 8 for K-12 schools. The province also has a plan for “safe cohorting” amongst students, has mandated masks for hallways and buses, but only students in grades 9-12, as well as all staff, may have to mask in classrooms or common areas where physical distancing is not possible.

Premier Scott Moe announced August 15 that $40 million will be allocated to safety measures in K-12 schools and is expected to relay more details on August 17.

Parents, teachers, and doctors have called for a better plan.


The province’s K-12 schools will resume on September 8 and the province recommends that students remain in dedicated cohorts as much as possible. Breaks will be staggered and entrances and exits will be managed to reduce congestion.

Plans are also in place to accommodate short-notice remote learning for students.

“Manitoba Education will continue to work closely with public health, education stakeholders, schools divisions, independent schools, parents, caregivers and students to further develop plans for the coming year,” the Ministry website says.

The government has requested schools use $48 million that was saved during school closures in the spring to cover additional costs in the 2020-21 school year.


The Ontario government’s K-12 school re-opening plan plan page says that returning to school will be the decision of parents, and the Ministry of Education will maintain contact with Ontario Health to use the most up-to-date information available.

Some high schools in the province are planning for half days of in-person instruction with the other half dedicated to remote learning in order to reduce the number of student interactions.

The province has allocated $309 million to schools, with $50 million of that directed specifically to hiring public health nurses. The province has also said that school boards will be able to use reserve funding of up to $500 million to fund safety protocols.

Parents and education staff protested Ontario’s plans.


The province of Quebec is returning to full-time schooling in September, after a “trial run” reopening in May. While there were a few setbacks with increased infections, the low attendance (around 20-25 per cent) at least allowed for the learning opportunity before the fall.

Schools will set up learning cohorts, and there are no masking requirements for grades K-4 but mandatory masks for high school students in common areas. High schools will also have the option of a blended (remote and in-person learning) schedule.

Students in grades K-9 will be placed in a “learning bubble” and will have minimal contact outside of their cohorts while high school students will be required to attend one out of every two days in a dedicated cohort.

Quebec has released an updated financial document as of June but funds allocated specifically to schools for safety or staffing is not outlined.

A petition is circulating demanding better protocols.

New Brunswick

New Brunswick schools will resume full-time in September and will be placed into cohorts, or bubbles. Students from K-2 will be limited to groups no larger than 15, grades 3-8 will not have class size limits but will be restricted to a cohort, and high school students will have in-person classes at least every second day and will be expected to use technology for classes every day.

Masks will be required for students in grades six and up, and staff, in common areas, and hand sanitizers will be available in all classrooms.

Plans are in place for the possibility that students, classes, or an entire school may be forced to continue learning from home.

The government had allocated an additional $70 million for New Brunswick public schools in 2019, and for the upcoming school year will spend $7 million to ensure students have devices needed for technology-based learning and $5 million to upgrade internet accessibility in schools. The province is also spending $20 million on cleaning supplies and janitorial staff.

Nova Scotia

Students in Nova Scotia will return to full-time classes in September with additional safety protocols for cleaning, physical distancing, and mask wearing.

Masks will be required on buses and in hallways for children in grade 4 and up. In the event that outbreaks happen, older students will begin remote learning at home so younger students can maintain appropriate physical distancing in schools.

The province has allocated an additional $40 million to fund the return to school plan.

Parents and educators have demanded further clarity on the reopening plans.

Prince Edward Island

The province announced that students will go back to full-time classes on September 8 and “be ready” to wear non-medical masks, but it is not a requirement at this time.

PEI’s reopening plans include recommendations for physical distancing in common areas and classrooms, additional sanitation protocols, and cohorting.

“Students in their cohorts will be assigned washrooms, lockers, sections or a playground and cafeteria and entrances and exits within these physical zones,” according to The Guardian.

The government has said additional resources will be made available but did not cite a specific dollar amount.

Newfoundland and Labrador

Schools in Newfoundland will reopen in September for full-time classes and have implemented distancing recommendations but is still discussing the use of masks.

“The Education Department is aiming to limit classroom attendance to 50 per cent when the COVID-19 risk in a community is considered low to moderate. Classroom priority will be given to students in kindergarten through Grade 6, to kids who have special needs and to children of essential workers,” according to the CBC in July.

The government plans to announce further measures on August 17.

All links to sources provided.

Deirdre Mitchell-MacLean is a political analyst physically distancing in Southern Alberta.

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