Ontario is calling for its larger school boards to offer targeted COVID-19 testing in at least five per cent of their elementary and secondary schools, reaching two per cent of their student populations weekly.
The updated approach for expanded testing in schools was laid out in a memo from Education Minister Stephen Lecce on Tuesday.
The memo calls for testing outside of Toronto, York and Peel’s school boards to begin Feb. 22. The requirement took effect in those three regions on Tuesday.
School boards with less than 10 schools will not be subject to the five per cent target, the memo saying the ministry will work with those boards to develop an “appropriate” testing plan for their school communities.
The schools targeted for testing will be chosen by the boards with support from the ministry and local public health units, the memo says.
The testing will consist of a combination of rapid antigen as well as PCR testing, “and will look to use less invasive methods of testing where possible,” the memo says.
The memo lays out steps boards have to follow to set up the testing initiative, including working with the local public health unit to develop a plan and contacting the ministry to have a vendor assigned to perform the tests.
Boards must submit plans, report back
As part of the plan, boards must submit testing plans each week and report back on testing activities.
Modelling presented last week said new, more infectious variants of the virus were poised to become prevalent and would cause cases to rise this month.
Lecce said Tuesday that new measures — including expansion of an asymptomatic testing initiative, stricter masking rules for younger students and a COVID-19 screening form — should help keep cases low in the province’s schools.
But he also called on school communities — in particular, high school students — to avoid mingling outside of schools to prevent he more infectious variants from spreading.
“We know we can keep schools open and safe,” Lecce said in an interview. “But it does require … the partnership of all of us because given that historically higher rate of positivity amongst high school kids, it’s going to require a real collective commitment to not congregate.”
He said the province is asking students and staff to “respect the cohorts” of student groups and not gather together outside their classes.
The Education Ministry reported that 50,000 asymptomatic tests are available for use on a voluntary basis across public health units this week, including at 40 schools in Toronto.
Their deployment falls to local public health units, and an exact figure on tests deployed to date wasn’t yet available on Tuesday.