OTTAWA -- Ottawa's largest school board is sharing more details about its plans for back-to-school in the fall.

In a letter to families, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board says its goal is to return to in-person learning, though pandemic safety measures and virtual schooling options will remain available.

"We believe that student learning and well-being is best supported through in-person learning," the letter says, adding that in-person classes help support mental health and wellbeing, social engagement for children, and better meets the needs of young children, English-learners and vulnerable students.

Pandemic safety measures to remain in place

Many safety measures in place this school year will make a return in the fall, the OCDSB says, including class structures.

"We plan to continue safety precautions in schools and expect that as vaccine distribution continues, the risk of spread is reduced," the school board says. "Over the course of the 2021-2022 school year, we hope to resume regular operations incrementally and as it is safe to do so, continuing to work closely and be guided by the advice from Ottawa Public Health."

In-person learning for kindergarten through Grade 8 will continue to be cohorted by class, to reduce COVID-19 transmission, with a focus on reducing the number of educator contacts who are delivering instruction to each homeroom or cohort.

Classes will be prepared to pivot to virtual learning should the need arise.

The board is less clear on plans for high school students, but says it anticipates a return to the A/B cohort model with alternating in-person days.

"The specific daily schedule cannot be confirmed at this time, but we have heard your concerns about one learning block per day. We hope to start the year and/or move to two classes a day and a lunch break between classes as soon as possible," the board says.

The school year will be organized into quadmesters, except for International Baccalaureate Program schools, which will follow octomesters.

"Once provincial and health advice supports the removal of cohorting, daily attendance, and/or a return to the regular semester format, we will look to implement those changes as quickly as possible," the OCDSB says.

Virtual learning still an option

Associate Director Brett Reynolds told OCDSB trustees earlier this week that despite a goal of returning to in-person learning as much as possible, there is still a need for virtual options.

"There is a need for a virtual learning option for some. For those whose personal health circumstances or family circumstances really deem a virtual learning option to be necessary," said Reynolds, citing possible safety and health reasons to continue with online learning. "In some cases, it has proven to be a better learning option for some of our students."

Families will have until the end of the day March 14 to confirm their children's attendance in virtual learning. The form is expected to be distributed in the coming week. Should the form not be completed, it will be assumed children are returning to in-person attendance, the board says.

The attendance confirmation will be for the entire school year.

Virtual elementary schools will offer the 50/50 Kindergarten program, the English Program and the Early French Immersion Program. Middle French Immersion and the Alternative Program will not be available. Students will receive 180 to 225 minutes of synchronous instruction per day from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. There will be 90 minutes of scheduled nutrition breaks and recesses supervised by families.

Virtual secondary learning will offer a full selection of courses in each grade level and in all three-program pathways: locally developed/workplace, applied, college preparation, and university preparation. Secondary High Skills Majors, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Arts Canterbury classes will not be available virtually. It is expected, though not confirmed, that virtual secondary school will operate on a quadmester model. There will be no formal exam period.

Special needs students

Specialized program classes will be in-person only in 2021-22.

"Our experience this year has shown that in-person learning is the best format to support students with special education needs, particularly those in specialized program classes," the OCDSB says.

Students with special education needs in regular in-person or virtual classes will continue to be supported with the necessary accommodations or modifications provided in their Individual Education Plan in-person or in virtual schooling.

Adult high school and secondary alternate program

Adult High School will continue to provide remote options for learners, as required, the OCDSB says. Students who attend one of the district’s secondary alternate programs will continue to have the option of registering with virtual learning or be provided with remote learning options through their program site.