LONDON, ONT. -- Schools in the area covered by the Middlesex-London Health Unit and Southwestern Public Health will return to school next week, the province announced Thursday.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce issued a statement saying, "On the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, with the support of the local Medical Officers of Health, and with the introduction of additional layers of protection, 280,000 students in four public health regions will return to class on Monday, February 1."

The other two health units are the Eastern Ontario Health Unit and Ottawa Public Health.

The announcement means all students in the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) and London District Catholic School Board (LDCSB) can return to in-class learning.

In both boards, elementary students return on Monday, Feb. 1 while high school students are scheduled to return Thursday, Feb. 4, to align with the start of their next semester. Bus transportation will also resume.

“We are very excited to be opening our schools. Our schools are safe,” says Mark Fisher, director of education at the TVDSB. High school students, “will continue on remotely for Monday and Tuesday, and then start in-person learning on Thursday,” he explained.

For boards that span multiple health units like the Conseil scolaire catholique Providence and Conseil scolaire Viamonde, parents are advised to contact their local health unit to find out if their school is reopening.

The return to in-class learning in the region means before and after-school child care programs also resume while emergency child care ends Friday.

Lecce added that health and safety measures are also being strengthened, "As more students and staff return to in-person learning, we are building on our plan by introducing stronger masking protocols to include grades 1-3, expanding access to targeted asymptomatic testing, and implementing stricter screening protocols."

The TVDSB says all students in grades 1-3 must now wear masks at all times while in school, a measure that has been in place since Sept. 2020. The same rules apply in the Catholic board.

“We were already out ahead of the curve, we mandated masks for all students,” explains Fisher. “The slight difference now is that students (grades 1-12) will have to wear their masks when they are outside at recess anytime they can’t maintain physical distancing.”

Given the increased amount of time that masks will be worn, Fisher adds, caregivers may wish to send more than one mask with their students.

“We do have a supply at school for those masks that get damaged during the day, but certainly its a very good idea to provide extra masks for our students.”

“As of today, the information I have is that march break will continue as scheduled,” Fisher says.

Fisher is optimistic about the return of students to classrooms.

“For the majority of students, we recognize now more than ever, its very important for their well-being to be back learning with and from their peers.”

Both the TVDSB and LCDSB are reminding students and their families that they must screen themselves for COVID-19 before going to school.

Ford hinted at return to school

In a morning interview on Newstalk 1290 CJBK in London, Ont. Premier Doug Ford hinted that Thursday's education announcement would make many parents 'happy.'

“I can’t say what we’re going to say, I’ll leave that to minister of education…I think most parents are going to be very, very happy,” said Ford.

Ford was on The Morning Show with Ken and Loreena and discussed several issues surrounding the pandemic including when kids might head back to school.

Students in the northern part of the province have been back in class for several weeks, while only seven boards in the southern region had previously been allowed to return to school.

Previously the Ford government had said that the earliest students would return to in-class learning in the remaining regions would be Feb. 10.

“Our goal is to get the kids back in class, I am a strong believer nothing is better for their mental then to be around friends, learning in class.”

- With files from CTV's Justin Zadorsky