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 also revealed Thursday that school officials will now monitor absenteeism in classrooms as opposed to reporting individual positive tests, with schools and public health units slated to notify parents when combined student and staff absences hit a level of around 30 per cent.
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 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 it had already been announced.
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.
Rapid tests will be ’empowering,’ for families, MOH says
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.
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.
Schools will now have to report daily data on staff absences to local public health units to monitor disruptions in schools, given limited access to tests. Ontario recently changed its rules about who can be tested, with officials citing a need to conserve testing for high-risk settings as the Omicron variant continues to surge across the province.
Moore has said hospitalization rates are now one of the most important metrics for the province to analyze, given case counts no longer give any sort of representation of overall transmission in Ontario. The province reported a new high of 3,448 patients in hospital with COVID-19 on Wednesday, a jump of over 1,000 from the same day last week when there were 2,081 people hospitalized with the virus.
Of those hospitalized with COVID-19, 54 per cent were admitted to hospital seeking treatment for COVID-19, while 45 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have tested positive for the illness, according to data by the Ministry of Health. That data does not list a breakdown for previous waves of the virus for comparison.
As of Wednesday, there are 505 people with COVID-19 in ICUs. That’s an increase from 477 patients the day before and up from 288 one week ago.
Approximately 83 per cent were admitted to the ICU seeking treatment for COVID-19 and 17 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have tested positive for the illness, according to the dataset.
Vaccination rate for kids hits plateau
Moore was also asked at a news conference Wednesday 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.
Though they have been asked more than once at news conferences this week, provincial officials have not shared what metrics have changed to make them feel that a return to in-person learning is safer than it was last week.
Moore noted the overall infection risk is high in the community right now.
“Schools will reflect what is going on in the community,” he said.
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.