Ontario education minister Stephen Lecce announced on Feb. 1 that the province will be expanding its targeted asymptomatic testing to schools and childcare centres located in areas where there are COVID-19 outbreaks, high case counts, and high priority communities.
“When we first launched targeted asymptomatic testing for students and staff and their households, we started in parts of the province which at the time had among the highest numbers of active COVID cases in the Toronto, Peel, Ottawa, and York Region,” Lecce said.
The minister said 63 schools participated and approximately 9,000 tests were conducted with about 200 new cases identified.
“Through these tests, we found that under 2 percent of all student cases came back positive, and the majority of positive cases were found in those outside of the school,” he added.
Besides expanding testing, Lecce said the province is allocating an additional $381 million to improve air quality and ventilation in schools, support online learning, promote student mental health, and hire additional staff.
Additional measures introduced also include province-wide access to targeted asymptomatic testing for students and staff, using a combination of lab-processed PCR and rapid antigen tests; mandatory masking for students in grades 1-3, including outdoors where physical distancing cannot be maintained; enhanced screening of secondary students and staff; new guidance discouraging students from congregating before and after; and temporary certification of eligible teacher candidates who are set to graduate in 2021 to stabilize staffing levels, following high levels of absenteeism.
“To protect Ontario students and staff, and with the aim of reopening all schools, we have again strengthened our plan with tougher measures and new investments,” Lecce said.
“We agree with parents and medical experts that kids need to be learning in class—alongside their friends and teachers—as it is crucial for their mental wellbeing and development. We will continue to follow expert medical advice and work to get all schools open, for children in all regions of our province.”
But the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) had criticised the Ford government for they said is a lack of detailed measures in advance of reopening schools on Monday.
“OSSTF/FEESO members, students, and families are tired of hearing about the new safety measures that have been put in place without specific examples of where and how these safety protocols have been implemented in Ontario’s schools,” said OSSTF in a news release on Jan. 28.
“There continues to be no consultation with education workers and teachers who prioritize the academic and mental health needs of the students and families that they service and support.”