Government Takes Further Action to Protect Schools

Published on October 28, 2021

Expanded Testing Options Will Reduce Disruption and Absenteeism


News Release

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.


Quick Facts

  • High-risk contacts are individuals who are identified by Public Health Units as a close contact of a confirmed COVID-19 case.
  • Roughly, an additional 3,700 schools in the publicly funded system, beyond those currently covered by hospital-led programs in Toronto and Ottawa, will have access to take-home PCR self-collection kits.
  • PCR tests detect the presence of a virus at the time the test is taken, as well as fragments of the virus even after the person is no longer infected.
  • As of October 28, more than 83 per cent of youth aged 12 to 17 have received a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 77 per cent have received a second dose.
  • Ontario issued a preferential recommendation on the use of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for individuals aged 18 to 24 years old. The province will continue using the Pfizer vaccine for youth ages 12 to 17 (including those turning 12 in 2021).
  • On August 16, 2021, the Ontario government announced that it is working with Public Health Units and publicly funded school boards to plan and host vaccination clinics for educators and staff in/or nearby schools to continue to fight COVID-19.
  • In 2021-22, Ontario will continue to provide temporary COVID-19 funding of more than $1.6 billion to school boards throughout the year. This will provide schools with a wide range of supports for student mental health, the hiring of additional staff, school-focused nurses in Public Health Units, remote learning technology, and health and safety measures in student transportation.
  • Currently, PCR testing is available at 218 assessment centres or community labs, mobile sites and other locations across the province. Ontario can process more than 100,000 lab-based PCR tests per day, if needed. Asymptomatic PCR testing for eligible individuals, as per provincial testing guidance, is currently available at 211 pharmacies.
  • Parents and caregivers who have questions about COVID-19 vaccines for children and youth can visit COVID-19 Vaccine Consult Service (sickkids.ca) to book a confidential phone appointment with a SickKids clinician.
  • The Ontario government is allocating significant investments in Ontario schools, including $600 million in net new investments for school ventilation, $1.4 billion to renew and maintain existing schools and $14 billion over ten years for new schools, additions, and major renovations.
  • Ontario is also making available $85.5 million for learning recovery and renewal to help schools across the province mitigate the effects of learning disruptions as a result of COVID-19. This investment will support student mental health and well-being, reading and math for young learners, and student re-engagement.

Quotes

"Providing take-home PCR self-collection kits for more students across the province will strengthen our ability to protect our kids and keep schools open and safe by limiting the spread of COVID-19. Together with the test-to-stay rapid antigen screening program being implemented, these tools will help identify cases that may otherwise be missed and reduce school closures. While we are reassured that COVID-19 transmission in schools remains low, we must remain vigilant and ready to respond to outbreaks driven by the Delta variant."

- Dr. Kieran Moore
Chief Medical Officer of Health for the province of Ontario

"Since the onset of the pandemic, our government’s top priority has been protecting the health and wellbeing of all Ontarians, including children and youth. Expanding access to PCR testing in schools will strengthen our toolkit and ensure that we detect cases sooner, adding an additional layer of protection for students and their families."

- Christine Elliott
Deputy Premier and Minister of Health

"Accessible and efficient COVID-19 testing is crucial for supporting the health and safety of students, teachers, school staff and their families for the remainder of the pandemic. We must do all that we can to ensure there are as few disruptions to the school year as possible for the well-being of children and youth across the province."

- Dr. Ronald Cohn
President and CEO, The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids)