Ontario relying on tests and vaccinations to keep schools open

With elementary and secondary schools returning to in-person learning on January 17, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced the province’s plan to keep staff and students safe on Wednesday afternoon. He was joined by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kieran Moore who is said to fully support the province’s back-to-school plan.

The province is relying on masking, testing and vaccinations to keep schools open.

In addition to N95 masks for staff and 3-ply masks for students, schools will also receive a significant amount of rapid antigen test kits which will be distributed to symptomatic individuals only. The province is also planning school-based vaccine clinics to make it easier for youth and staff to get vaccinated.

“We are meeting the unique challenges presented by the Omicron variant head-on as we do everything we can to support in-person learning,” said Minister Lecce. “Our government is taking nothing for granted, which is why we are launching school-based vaccination clinics, distributing millions of rapid antigen tests and have deployed non-fit-tested N95 masks to staff and three-ply masks to students.”

The Ford government has asked school boards to work with their Public Health Units (PHUs) to set up school-day vaccination clinics to boost immunization rates, especially among the younger age groups. These clinics will be held during school hours.

The province said current vaccination rates among children aged 12 to 17 years old are encouraging with more than 82 per cent having received two doses. But more needs to be done among children aged five to 11 years old, more than 50 per cent  of whom have yet to receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

School boards are also expected to work with local PHUs and share documents and other information with families. In the coming days, parents will receive a form offering the opportunity to safely and conveniently provide public health units the authority to vaccinate their child at a school-based vaccine clinic.

To help stabilize workforce and student participation, beginning the week of January 17, the province will also provide rapid antigen tests for students and staff in public elementary and secondary schools, along with children and staff in child care settings. Officials said over 3.9 million rapid antigen tests are being shipped to school boards this week, with additional tests to be delivered next week. The use of the tests is for symptomatic individuals, who will be required to take two rapid tests 24 hours apart, and upon negative results can return to class.

Retired teachers and eligible first-year teacher candidates will help fill staff vacancies and prevent teacher-absentee-related shutdowns. 

Updated and stricter screening requirements for students and staff, including daily onsite confirmation of screening have also been put in place.

New time-limited cohorting protocols to limit direct and indirect contacts by pausing high-contact extra curricular sports, stricter lunch cohort requirements, and elevated cleaning requirements at all schools are also being implemented.

However, Ontario parents will not be made aware of specific concerns about COVID-19 in their child’s school until approximately 30 per cent of pupils are absent, according to new guidelines.

Testing resources will also be limited to symptomatic individuals only.

“In-person learning is critical to the mental health and well-being of our children and youth,” said Dr. Moore. “In light of the unique challenges posed by the Omicron variant, my team and I will continue to work with the education sector to review all of our guidelines and all environmental, health, cleaning, and ventilation standards to ensure our schools remain as safe as possible for all.”

Remote learning will remain an option for those families wishing to access it.

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