A student arrives by bus on the first day of school before the start of classes at the entrance of Gulf High School on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in New Port Richey, Fla. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

Schools are preparing to welcome students back for the new year as early as next week.

However, there are still plenty of questions about returning to the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the end of July, the provincial government said elementary schools could allow students back full time, with classes capped at 30 students. Secondary schools will break into two cohorts, alternating online and in-person classes.

Parents can also choose to have their children take classes online.

Here's the latest information about how the Waterloo Region District School Board and the Waterloo Catholic District School Board are preparing for the new school year.

WHEN WILL CLASSES BEGIN?

Last month, the province said schools could choose to stagger the start of the school year. Both the WRDSB and WCDSB have chosen a staggered scheduled this year.

Most elementary students in public schools will start their staggered schedule on Sept. 14. The WRDSB said Sept. 8 and 9 will be used for staff to prepare for students' arrival. Children with special needs will start school on Sept. 10 and 11. Junior kindergarteners will come to school for orientation on Sept. 10 and 11.

Starting Sept. 14, students will come to class on a different day throughout the week based on their last name. All students will come to class on Sept. 18.

The Catholic school board is staggering elementary students based on grades, starting on Sept. 8. All students will attend classes in-person on Sept. 11.

Secondary schools in the WRDSB will open for Grade 9 orientation on Sept. 9 and 10. The first cohort of other secondary students will start in-person classes on Sept. 11 and the other cohort will start in-person classes on Sept. 17.

Secondary students going to Catholic school will start on Sept. 14.

WHO WILL NEED TO WEAR A MASK?

Both the WRDSB and WCDSB have mandated masks for all staff, students and visitors while inside facilities.

The school board trustees voted to make masks mandatory for everyone in August.

The provincial government mandated masks for students in Grades 4 to 12. Mask use in younger students was strongly encouraged.

School boards in Waterloo Region said enforcement will be focused on education rather than punishment, especially with younger students.

HOW BIG WILL CLASSES BE?

Elementary classes in the WRDSB and WCDSB will both have a maximum of 30 students per classroom.

The boards were both named designated school boards when the province released its back-to-school plan in July, meaning secondary schools will operate on a "quadmester" schedule. Students will be split into two cohorts, going to school half the time and taking online classes with the other half.

Each quadmester will offer two classes for secondary students.

WHAT WILL SCHOOLS AND CLASSROOMS LOOK LIKE?

All school entrances will have hand sanitizer provided for people entering and exiting the buildings.

There are also floor markers indicating hallway direction and where people should stand to maintain proper physical distancing.

Desks are spread further apart than normal to allow for adequate space between students.

Some schools have set up hula hoops for younger children to mark out spaces for students. There are also individual supply kits given to students so they won't need to share.

HOW WILL DISTANCE LEARNING WORK?

The WRDSB's elementary distance learning will start on Sept. 14. The board said teachers will connect with students between Sept. 9 and Sept. 11 for virtual one-on-ones.

Secondary students in public school will be contacted for a virtual one-on-one on Sept. 9 and 10, with full-day classes scheduled to start on Sept. 11.

Both the WRDSB and WCDSB have said distance learning will be a combination of classes led virtually by teachers, along with time spent doing independent learning and other assignments.

HOW WILL SCHOOLS HANDLE COVID-19 OUTBREAKS?

Last week, the Ontario government laid out its plan to handle COVID-19 outbreaks, defining them as two or more lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in students or staff with an epidemiological link between them.

Region of Waterloo Public Health officials plan to follow that definition when handling outbreaks in local schools.

Dr. Hsiu Li Wang, Waterloo Region's Medical Officer of Health, said Tuesday that public health's involvement will begin as soon as one COVID-19 case is identified in a school.

Classes may be dismissed if a student has a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19, Dr. Wang said.

WHAT HAPPENS IF A STUDENT SHOWS COVID-19 SYMPTOMS?

Students showing COVID-19 symptoms at a school in the WRDSB will be removed from class and put into isolation.

The schools have set up waiting rooms for students, where they can remain isolated until someone is able to pick them up from the school.

The WCDSB has set up sneeze guards in the office for students who may fall ill during school hours. That school board also has an isolation room for symptomatic students until they can be picked up by a parent or guardian.

WHERE CAN STUDENTS, STAFF AND PARENTS GO FOR COVID-19 TESTING?

Waterloo Region has four COVID-19 testing centres:

  • The Grand River Hospital-run drive-thru in the Catalyst parking lot
  • The Cambridge-North Dumfries Community Assessment and Testing Centre at Cambridge Memorial Hospital
  • The St. Mary's General Hospital COVID-19 testing centre
  • Kitchener-Waterloo-Wilmot-Wellesley-Woolwich (KW4) Community Assessment Centre

HOW WILL COVID-19 CASES BE REPORTED?

Public health officials said COVID-19 cases and outbreaks in schools will be reported on the school boards’ websites within the region.

They will work with the school boards to keep that information updated.

Links to the school’s COVID-19 information will also be available on Waterloo Region’s COVID-19 dashboard.

COULD SCHOOLS CLOSE AGAIN?

Both the provincial government and Region of Waterloo Public Health have said school closures are a possibility.

Earlier this week, Premier Doug Ford said he wouldn’t hesitate to shut schools down if the risk of COVID-19 became too great.

Dr. Wang said school closures would only happen if there was uncontrolled transmission of the novel coronavirus.

This story will be updated if the school boards change their plans.