Back-to-school: COVID-19 rules across Canada

Story by CBC Kids News • 2020-09-01 11:09
This article is being updated regularly, as provinces make adjustments to their policies. It was last updated on Sept. 4 to reflect changes in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Every province and territory will be slightly different

As the countdown to back-to-school continues, you may be wondering what class will look like come fall.

As of now, every province and territory is planning to reopen schools, but it will feel different from when you were there last.

School divisions, boards and individual schools may have different plans.

Parents should check with their children’s own schools for the full list of rules and guidelines.

Here’s what we know so far.

Student groupings, distancing, hand sanitizer a reality for all schools

From coast to coast, all back-to-school plans include a few key measures:

  1. Physical distancing: While distancing is being encouraged for older students across Canada, it’s not as practical for younger students.
  2. Additional cleaning and hygiene rules: This includes regular hand sanitization. Food sharing is discouraged.
  3. Class groupings: These are also known as cohorts, where a certain number of students can be within two metres of each other. This is done in an effort to minimize the number of people any one student or teacher is exposed to.
  4. Daily self-screening: This entails checking yourself for COVID-19 symptoms and taking an online self-assessment test, if necessary.

Here’s a look at some of the big similarities and differences between provinces and territories:


Many of these decisions are based on new guidelines from the Hospital for Sick Children (a.k.a. SickKids) in Toronto.

The hospital is not recommending masks for young kids, but is recommending things like cohorts, rearranging classroom furniture and smaller class sizes.

A province-by-province look

Apart from those countrywide trends, each province and territory has announced its own unique details.

Here’s a look at some of the key details:


All kindergarten to Grade 12 classes in Alberta are expected to be near-normal in the fall.

On Aug. 4, the province declared that students grades 4-12 will be required to wear masks in school.

All staff and students will be provided with two reusable masks by the Alberta government. Single-use masks will also be available in the schools.

Physical distancing will be encouraged but is not mandatory.

Activities such as in-person singing, cheering or shouting, or playing wind instruments will be postponed.

British Columbia

In British Columbia, most students will return to full-time in-class instruction with some urban high schools using a mix of in-person and virtual.

All students in Kindergarten to Grade 7 will return full time to the classroom.

On Aug. 17, the province announced that masks will be mandatory for middle and high school students in high-traffic areas, like hallways.

The province has promised funding to buy 1.5 million masks, which they say is enough for at least two per student and staff member.

Originally, school was to begin on Sept. 8, but staff and teachers said that wasn’t enough time to get ready.

As of Aug. 11, the new start date is set for Sept. 10.

All students will be divided into cohorts, a.k.a learning groups.

Elementary and middle school learning groups will have a maximum of 60 students, while secondary school learning groups will have up to 120 students.

A kid raising her hand in a classroom.

B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming says all schools will be operating in 'a new normal situation' in the fall. (Image credit: Fred Tanneau/AFP)

Fewer students will be allowed in the learning groups for younger students, as it is more difficult for them to practise safe physical distancing.

Students in the same learning group will not all have to be in the same class and will be able to socialize in shared spaces like hallways and cafeterias.

Students can take an elective outside their group, but they will have to physically distance.

Final details of the plan will be released by Aug. 26.


In Manitoba, the province has decided to resume in-class learning with additional health measures in place.

Students between kindergarten and Grade 8 will go back to in-class learning full time. 

Each class will be considered one cohort, but students will still be recommended to stay as distant from one another as possible.

Grades 9-12 will be in class for a minimum of two days a week, if not more. The rest of the time, students will learn virtually.

An empty hallway.

The maximum number of students per cohort in Manitoba will be limited to 75. When not in a cohort, students are expected to remain two metres from one another. (Image credit: Warren Kay/CBC)

The priority for schools in September will be core subjects like math, sciences and English.

Music and gym classes will likely go ahead but will probably look different than normal, with outdoor learning recommended whenever possible.

On Aug. 19, Manitoba’s premier Brian Pallister announced that masks will be required for students in grade 4-12 in common spaces where distancing isn’t possible.

New Brunswick

Classes for kindergarten to Grade 8 students will resume full time, with distancing required between cohorts.

Classes for Grades 9-12 will resume on a rotational basis, but students will not be grouped.

Instead, high school students will have a reduced number of students per class, with a required distance of one metre between each person.

A distance of two metres will be encouraged in common areas at all grade levels.

On Aug. 13, the province announced that students in Grades 6 to 12 will be required to wear face masks on school buses and in common areas like hallways and bathrooms.

Students from kindergarten to Grade 5 will be encouraged, but not required to wear masks in common areas.

Newfoundland and Labrador

On Sept. 1 the province mandated that students Grades 7 to 12 wear masks when social distancing is not possible.

Newfoundland and Labrador broke down its options for back-to-school into three scenarios.

The first scenario involves schools opening and instruction resuming almost as normal, with physical distancing measures in place.

The second features schools being partially opened, while the third involves full-time at-home learning.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, Newfoundand and Labrador’s chief medical officer of health, at a press conference.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, Newfoundand and Labrador’s chief medical officer of health, says which scenario plays out in each school, and at what time, depends on the virus. (Image credit: Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

Decisions for these scenarios won’t be made provincewide, but will instead be based on the COVID-19 statistics in each region.

Parents and guardians of students will be responsible for filling out a COVID-19 assessment sheet each morning.

Siblings will be encouraged to sit together on buses and all students will have to follow seating plans.

Northwest Territories

In the Northwest Territories, in-person learning will take place as much as possible.

But to accommodate physical distancing requirements, some schools will need to use learning spaces other than classrooms, possibly outside of the school.

Other schools are looking at having students learning in shifts, with some students attending classes in the morning and others in the afternoon or on alternating days.

Physical distancing will be required for Grades 7-12, but won’t be required for kindergarten to Grade 6 students when inside the classroom bubble.

Nova Scotia

Students in all grades in Nova Scotia will return to class full-time.

On Aug. 14, the province announced that students in Grades 4 to 12 will be required to wear a mask inside schools except if they are seated at their desks and those desks are two metres apart and facing in the same direction.

Masks must be worn in hallways and any areas where two metre distancing can’t be maintained. 

According to Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief public health officer, the decision was made based on “recent evidence and guidance from the Public Health Agency of Canada."

“Children need safe and supportive learning environments and that means being back in school with their peers. Our plan supports the full, safe return of students and staff, while allowing us to adapt how students will learn if anything changes.” — Zach Churchill, minister of education and childhood development, Nova Scotia

School assemblies will be cancelled for the time being, and parent-teacher nights will take place virtually.

More than 14,000 new or repaired devices, such as tablets, will be distributed among students with limited access to technical equipment.


Nunavut is currently free of COVID-19.

If it stays that way, kindergarten to Grade 12 classes will resume five days a week in the fall.

There will be limited group activities, including sports, assemblies and gym classes.

Bus schedules will continue as usual.

Students will be allowed to eat in common areas but should not share food or beverages and should avoid physical contact.


Elementary students in Ontario will be heading back to school five days per week come September, and will be split into cohorts.

Recesses, lunches and bathroom breaks will be staggered to support those groupings.

Most high school students in designated school boards (which will mostly be located in cities and the suburbs) will attend school on alternating days, in cohorts of about 15.

Those attending high schools with areas with lower student populations will go back to school full time, and will also be put into cohorts.

Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce speaking at a press conference.

Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce says reopening schools is ‘critical’ for the learning and development of the province’s students. (Image credit: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Students in Grades 4-12 will be required to wear a non-medical mask at school.

Younger children will be encouraged to wear masks, but it won’t be required.

However, parents and guardians will be able to choose to keep their children out of in-person classes if they wish. In that case, the child would continue to attend classes virtually.

Clubs and organized sports will be allowed only if physical distancing is possible and spaces are disinfected between use.

Prince Edward Island

Classrooms in Prince Edward Island will be configured to support physical distancing and schools will work to reduce class sizes when necessary.

Distancing, however, will not be required in classrooms.

Lunch and recess breaks will be staggered, as well as drop-off and pick-up times.

There will be screening protocols for all people entering a school.

School buses and routes will be added and parents will be asked to transport their children to and from school whenever possible.

A row of school busses.

In P.E.I., parents will be asked to transport their children to and from school whenever possible to minimize students on buses. (Image credit: John Robertson/CBC)

The province’s final plan is expected to be announced next week.


Kindergarten to Grade 11 classes will resume full time in Quebec come fall. (In Quebec, high school ends after Grade 11).

On Aug. 10, it was announced that students grades 5 and up will be required to wear masks in common areas, like hallways. Masks will be optional within the classroom.

Students will no longer be sorted into subgroups, like they were in the spring. Instead, each classroom will be its own cohort or bubble. Distancing will not be required within that bubble.

Travel in hallways will be limited to one direction at a time, and markings will be used to create one-way lanes.

Schedules will be adjusted to reduce the number of students who enter and exit facilities at the same time.


Recess, lunch and transition times between classes will be staggered.

Physical distancing should be maintained whenever possible and classroom furniture may be rearranged to make that possible. 

For younger children, the province said maintaining physical distance is less practical and the focus should be on minimizing physical contact instead.

There won’t be daily screenings or temperature checks.


Across the province, kindergarten to Grade 9 students will return to full-day, in-class learning five days per week.

In Whitehorse, Grades 10-12 will return to half-day in-class learning. The other half of the day will take place virtually at home.

Smaller classrooms and group sizes may also be in effect.

There will be a maximum of two students per seat on buses unless they are from the same household and using assigned seats.


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