Ontario’s return to in-person learning will focus on rapid testing, improved ventilation and more access to vaccinations and personal protective equipment (PPE), while also taking steps to address expected staff absenteeism, Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, explained on Wednesday.
The province’s plan includes doling out two rapid antigen tests to each student and staff member to be used when symptomatic.
The rapid antigen tests will be provided “starting with staff in child care and public schools, children in child care settings, and students in public elementary schools, followed by secondary students,” the province said.
Students and staff will be back in the classroom on Monday, January 17 and Lecce outlined a variety of measures that aim to keep schools safe and open amid a surging wave of COVID-19 Omicron cases.
“Ontario’s plan to open and protect schools is focused on deploying millions of rapid tests to our schools and our child care centres, enhancing ventilation and high quality PPE, along with increasing access to vaccines for both children on a voluntary basis, and staff,” Lecce said.
Lecce also touted new measures to enhance staff capacity and deal with expected staff absences, including a new arrangement that nearly doubles the number of days retired educators can work, from 50 to 95 and allowing first and second‐year teacher candidates to become eligible to help provide temporary staffing at hard-hit schools.
In a bid to minimize school closures, the province advises rotating/planned remote days if needed and combining classes and assigning students to different classes where necessary.
Principals will monitor absenteeism and will notify local PHU’s when it reaches 30 per cent in a school, though it won’t necessarily trigger a school closure.
On Tuesday, the province updated its back-to-school guidance, saying that students will only be eligible for PCR testing if they develop COVID-19 symptoms while they are at school. Cohorts will no longer be dismissed in the event of a positive case and schools will no longer routinely notify students in classes with a positive case.
Students that test positive at school will need to adhere to the provincial isolation and testing guidelines.
Health Minister Christine Elliott was asked Tuesday what has changed to allow schools to safely reopen next week.
“We know it helps students to be in school for their mental and physical health,” she says. Adding the government “has done everything that we can to make school safe for students.”
Back-to-school plan sparks controversy
The CEO of Ontario Health, Matthew Anderson, said Tuesday he doesn’t expect opening schools alone to drive COVID-19 cases higher. But he does expect the number of people infected in the community to increase, which will lead to teachers taking more time away from school.
“The data suggests that being back in school does not drive up the cases for our kids,” says Anderson. “What we need to monitor really is absenteeism for our teachers and for the kids coming back to school.”
But Epidemiologist Colin Furness told CItyNews the province appears to be more interested in monitoring a problem rather than preventing it. He says the data Anderson cites about schools not driving up cases “does not exist.”
“Modelling data tells us that opening schools is a giant mistake and that we are going to see a great deal of transmission,” said Furness.
Karen Littlewood is the President of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) and says her teachers are confused by the new guidance.
“Is school a magical place where if you develop symptoms at school you should be tested but if you develop symptoms at home you’re okay?” she asks. “I really don’t understand the reasoning behind all of this.”
The Ford government is pointing out that almost every province has implemented similar testing measures in schools and many Canadian provinces never tracked school cases at all.
-With files from the Canadian Press