TORONTO: To support safer schools and reduce barriers to testing for all school-aged children, Ontario’s Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, announced increased access to low-barrier testing options to support in-person student attendance at school and reduce disruptions to families.
Ontario schools remain safe, according to the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health and the Children’s Health Coalition, supported by high levels of immunization and strong public health measures, including ventilation improvements across all publicly funded schools in the province. Currently, more than 83 per cent of youth aged 12 and up have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and more than 77 per cent have received two doses. With approximately 3,300 cumulative cases per 100,000 amongst individuals aged 0 to 19, Ontario has one of the lowest case rates for youth under 20 in the country. Transmission continues to remain low in schools, and since September 2021 more than 99 per cent of students have not reported a case of COVID-19.
With the support of Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, the government announced new measures, to build upon this work and to ensure schools remain open and safe, including:
- Offering take-home polymerase chain reaction (PCR) self-collection kits to all publicly funded schools across the province, with a phased rollout starting in mid-November.
- The launch of a new “test-to-stay” approach for asymptomatic, unvaccinated students using the deployment of rapid antigen screening tests at the direction of public health units to support in-person learning and avoid whole school dismissals.
- Elevating the requirement for unvaccinated staff to undergo rapid antigen screening from two to three times per week.
Ontario is leading the way in offering take-home PCR self-collection kits for all students and staff. The PCR self-collection initiative builds on the existing COVID-19 take-home PCR self-collection pilot that was launched in 160 schools in September, which focuses on secondary school students who are contacts of confirmed cases and are asymptomatic and fully vaccinated.
“While Ontario schools are safer places to learn supported by enhanced ventilation and high vaccination rates, we are taking nothing for granted,” said Stephen Lecce. “By expanding access to testing and helping to better screen for COVID-19, we are protecting the progress we have made so far in keeping our schools safer for students and helping to limit disruption to the school year. These additional efforts build on the extensive safety protocols and investments we have made to protect schools, including the more than $600 million our government has provided to support ventilation improvements.”
Students with COVID-19 symptoms and students who have been identified as close contacts of a confirmed COVID-19 case will be able to pick up PCR self-collection kits at school, complete the specimen self-collection at home and drop the specimen off at convenient locations in the community.
In addition, the newly introduced “test-to-stay” approach, intended to support continued in-person school attendance in schools with multiple cases of COVID-19, involves frequent rapid antigen screening over a 10- day period for asymptomatic, unvaccinated students in a school that might otherwise require whole school dismissal. While people who are confirmed cases or high-risk contacts in the school will still need to self-isolate and access PCR testing according to public health guidance, other students in the school will be able to continue attending school in person. The frequent rapid antigen screening in the “test-to-stay” approach will identify any additional COVID-19 cases in a timely manner.
Ontario’s plan for safer schools is focused on minimizing disruption and maximizing safe, in-class learning. It is supported by $1.6 million in resources for the 2020-21 school year and major improvements in mechanical ventilation and 70,000 HEPA and other ventilation devices in learning spaces, in addition to various other strategies to support infection prevention and control.