Ontario bringing in more rapid tests as students set to return to school

Province relying on rapid tests, vaccinations and improved ventilation as Omicron surge continues

Ontario students will get two rapid antigen tests when they return to in-class learning next Monday, but apart from that, the province is relying mostly on previously-announced measures to keep schools safe amid the Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The province is touting updated screening, new shipments of masks, ventilation improvements, vaccinations, new hires and time-limited cohorting protocols as the pillars of its plan with schools set to reopen for in-person learning on Jan. 17.

The details of the plan are located in the document at the bottom of this story. The vast majority of the measures included in the plan had already been announced.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Wednesday that the province has strong protections in place, that are fully supported by Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore.

We believe so strongly that children need to be in school, Lecce said.

The province announced Wednesday that students and staff in schools and child-care settings will each get two rapid COVID-19 tests after schools return to in-person learning.

Tests will be distributed starting next week first to staff, then to children in daycares and students in public elementary schools, followed by high school students.

Provincial officials say more tests will be provided when supply allows.

People with symptoms are to use two tests 24 to 48 hours apart and can return to school after negative results once their symptoms improve.

Moore said this distribution of rapid tests will be empowering for parents and students, as opposed to previous PCR testing. That’s because of greater convenience and less going to assessment centres, he said.

At a technical briefing Wednesday, government officials said school principals will be tasked with monitoring absenteeism in classrooms as opposed to individual tests.

Principals and local public health units will notify parents when absences hit a level of around 30 per cent, officials said.

Schools will now have to report daily data on staff absences to local public health units to monitor disruptions in schools, with the limited access to tests.

Ontario school boards can rotate between in-person and remote days or combine classes, if needed, to minimize school closures driven by virus-related staff absences when schools reopen.

Moore was also asked about low uptake levels of vaccinations for children. The province’s immunization rate for the five-to-11-year-old age group has stalled and is currently at 45 per cent.

He said despite that, the province is not planning to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory at schools.

It is a new vaccine, and as a result of that we want greater experience with it before we mandate it, he said.

Premier Doug Ford previously pointed to the growing pressure on hospitals and a coming tsunami of COVID-19 cases when he announced the temporary shift to online learning on Jan. 3, which he had said would last until at least Jan. 17, depending on health indicators at the time.

On Tuesday, teachers unions and parents of school-aged children expressed safety concerns about the reopening plan since the government isn’t currently offering PCR tests for students and teachers unless they become symptomatic while at school.

A document from the Ministry of Health said those who develop symptoms at home are asked to isolate and not attend school.

See PDF document from Ministry of Education on CBC News page – CBC is not responsible for 3rd party content