Ontario will announce on Wednesday when its schools will reopen, according to Education Minister Stephen Lecce.
That’s when the province’s chief medical officer of health will finalize his advice on the matter, Lecce said in a tweet on Monday.
“We want all students in all regions back to class,” Lecce said.
“The Government will provide certainty parents deserve by announcing on Wednesday the dates for reopening
Earlier on Monday, Lecce said the province is expanding COVID-19 testing for students and that it will allow school boards to bring in student teachers to fill supply roles as more schools reopen amid the second wave of the pandemic.
Officials said the targeted testing will be available in all public health units where students have returned to class. They said they expect that Ontario can complete up to 25,000 laboratory-processed and 25,000 on-site, rapid antigen tests per week but offered no timeline on how long it could take to get to that level.
The testing will be voluntary for both students and staff, officials said.
The Ministry of Education previously carried out about 9,000 targeted tests in some schools in Toronto, Ottawa, Peel and York regions between Nov. 26 and Dec. 18.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said the province recently worked with the manufacturer of the rapid antigen tests to approve a less-intrusive swab for young children, who sometimes struggle with the conventional nasopharyngeal method.
Expansion of the testing program accompanies the injection of another $381-million Ottawa recently released as part of Phase 2 of the Federal Safe Return to Class Fund. A previous $381-million in federal funds for school reopenings came last August.
That money will be put toward health and safety in schools, and the development of summer and online learning materials and mental health supports, among a host of additional priorities, Lecce said at a news conference.
Meanwhile, the province is temporarily changing its teacher certification program to allow about 2,000 student teachers to fill supply roles.
The teacher candidates must be enrolled in, and have successfully completed a portion of, a current teaching program. They must also be scheduled to complete their program by Dec. 31.
Last fall, the province allowed boards to bring on retired teachers and principals as they looked to reduce average class sizes.
To date, more than 500,000 students in 19 of Ontario’s 34 public health units have been given a green light to return to classrooms. That includes those in the Middlesex-London and Ottawa, where in-person instruction restarted on Monday.
The next wave of students, from Toronto, Peel, York Region, Windsor-Essex and Hamilton, are currently scheduled to return on Feb. 10.
Earlier, when asked if that return date is a certainty, Lecce said only that he hopes to have all students back in school as soon as it is safe.
Williams said COVID-19 trends in the province suggest that transmission rates are falling in some of the hardest-hit regions, and that he is hopeful the Feb. 10 return will happen. He said local medical officers of health will have a say in whether a given region reopens schools.
In a recent letter to Lecce and Minister of Health Christine Elliott, regional health officials called on the province to prioritize opening schools before lifting other public health restrictions aimed at reducing high levels of COVID-19 infection and hospitalizations from the illness.
“Upon careful review and consideration of local indicators, we believe it is possible, and in fact, imperative, that schools begin to open before the reopening of other sectors, as the stay-at-home orders are lifted provincially,” wrote Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, chair of the Council of Ontario Medical Officers of Health.
“Safe reopening of all schools in Ontario is essential.”
Transmission risk low, says CDC
The letter, dated last Friday, cited guidance from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children that flagged “harms of prolonged school closures” and recommended daily in-person classrooms be “the last to close and the first to open.”
It also noted a recent paper from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed transmission risk within schools was low, with mask requirements and student cohorting in place.
Ontario introduced new safety measures in schools this winter — including masking for Grades 1 to 3 — though debate continues about whether the measures are adequate.
A provincewide lockdown began on Dec. 26, and it was supplemented with a stay-at-home earlier this month.
The measures appear to have, at least in part, curbed transmission of the virus. The seven-day average of new daily cases of COVID-19 in Ontario has been in steady decline since its peak on Jan. 11, and hospitalizations have slowed.
Revised models published last week, however, cautioned that variants of the virus could become dominant by mid-March.