The Ontario government is betting on COVID-19 rapid tests, free masks and increased access to vaccinations to get two million school children back in classrooms and keep them safe there.
From Monday, millions of rapid antigen tests will be delivered to students, teachers and staff in schools and childcare settings, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced on Wednesday.
While daily absenteeism counts for schools or education boards will be published online from January 24, families will only be notified by local public health agencies when their school reaches 30 percent – though this threshold includes all reasons for absenteeism, not just the highly contagious ones. Omicron variant.
Everyone will initially receive two quick tests, and more will come as supplies are purchased.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said millions of rapid antigen tests will be delivered to teachers and students as well as to day care workers.
Schools were due to reopen for personal learning on January 3, but Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s health chief, initially delayed it for two days so N95 masks for teachers and HEPA air filters for classrooms could start going out to boards.
But last week, Prime Minister Doug Ford said students would switch to online learning until January 17 at the earliest due to a “tsunami” of COVID-19 cases.
“I wish we could say we could eliminate it, but that’s not the case,” Ford said as he toured a vaccination clinic for teachers, students and education workers at the Toronto Zoo.
In Queen’s Park, Lecce stressed that Ontario does more with masks, filters and other measures than any other province in Canada.
“I know it’s been tough, but we’ll get through this,” he said.
Moore – who, like Lecce, is a strong advocate for keeping schools open – said that “while the risk of transmission in school settings can never be eliminated,” with masking, ventilation and more vaccinations “it can be reduced or mitigated.”
Pediatric experts, including those at Sick Kids Hospital and Ottawa’s CHEO, have issued strong calls for a return to the personal classes, given that distance learning has taken on children’s mental health and well-being.
Yes, newly published research of the province’s COVID-19 science table, which had advised Ford to have the two-week power outage, said school closures “are associated with serious risks to children.”
It cited a study of people aged six to 18 with no previous mental health problems, which found that the number of depression and anxiety “almost tripled during the COVID-19 pandemic to one in four for depression and one in five for anxiety.”
Ontario students have spent more time learning online than in any other Canadian province, US state or large part of Europe – about 27 weeks and counting since the pandemic hit 96 weeks ago.
Moore said that before, “an entire group of children would have been sent home for two or three positive cases in a class, significantly disrupting students’ learning in the classroom and affecting their households.”
Now, he said, “our new approach focuses on empowering parents and students” with PCR tests if a student or staff member becomes ill in schools, plus the rapid tests.
Parents and critics have said families need to know when there are COVID-19 cases in schools.
But with new provincial boundaries for PCR testing, that will no longer happen. Instead, schools will track student and staff absenteeism, and principals will contact local public health officials when they hit 30 percent.
“It should not be easier to find out if there is a lice outbreak in your child’s school than a COVID outbreak,” said NDP education critic Marit Stiles.
Moore said that when a school’s absenteeism rate hits 30 percent, “there will be consultation between the health unit to understand if there is an impact on the health system, what is the transition going on in that community, and communication prepared to inform parents with it the same of any potential risk and the risk assessment carried out by the local public health agency. “
“There will be an explanation and actions that families can take to further protect themselves,” the top doctor said.
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said “it is extremely important that the delivery of the rapid antigen tests for staff and students happens as soon as possible … There are many in our school community who remain concerned over our impaired ability to accurately track cases at our schools. “
Wilfrid Laurier University epidemiologist Todd Coleman welcomed the masking measures, but warned that the high reliance on rapid testing will inevitably slip cases through because people can transmit COVID-19 before showing symptoms.
Coleman said the government’s plan to postpone notifying parents of potential outbreaks until a 30 percent absenteeism rate is reached in a class, along with setting up more substitute teachers – now also allowing first-year teacher students to deliver – suggests that ” they expect high transmission levels.
Asked why Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is not mandatory – such as shots against diphtheria, measles, mumps, polio, rubella and tetanus – to go to school in Ontario, Moore said it was “new”, and that “we will have more experience with it before we give it a mandate.”
That remark received criticism from those who feared it could slow down vaccination efforts, prompting the health ministry to issue a “clarification” later in the afternoon.
“I would like to be aware that the pediatric Pfizer vaccine for children five to 11 years of age is safe, effective and provides strong protection against COVID-19 and its variants,” said a statement from Moore, noting that “millions” of children have received shots with only mild side effects.
Lecce said that although vaccinations are not mandatory, keeping vaccination clinics on site before, during and after school will help increase rates among children aged five to 11 years; currently, less than half of them have had a shot.
The province has distributed 9.1 million N95 respirator masks to school boards for all employees and another four million three-layer masks to Ontario’s two million students.
In addition, 3,000 HEPA air filters will be installed in classrooms on top of the 70,000 currently in schools.
JOIN THE CONVERSATIONS