Ontario is expanding its COVID-19 testing options for students and staff at the province's 4,800 schools as well as increasing rapid testing requirements for unvaccinated staff.
The province will provide a supply of take-home testing kits to all publicly funded schools starting in mid-November, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced Thursday.
The government says the tests can be used by students and staff who show symptoms of COVID-19 or by anyone in the school system considered to be a high-risk contact of a confirmed case.
The idea behind offering these as take-home tests is to make it easier on families than booking a testing appointment at a COVID-19 assessment centre, said a senior government official who briefed reporters ahead of Lecce's announcement.
The kits will consist of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which require processing at a provincial lab and take typically 24 to 48 hours to produce a result. PCR tests are more accurate at detecting the virus that causes COVID-19 than rapid tests that provide a result in minutes.
WATCH | Ontario to supply take-home testing kits to all publicly funded schools:
Once the program launches on Nov. 15, parents with a symptomatic child will have to pick up a take-home test from their child's school and must drop them off at a provincial assessment centre or participating pharmacy for processing, said a news release from the Ministry of Education.
The take-home PCR testing program adds 3,700 schools to recently established programs in Toronto and Ottawa, led by hospitals.
No sign of vaccine mandate for staff
Lecce also announced plans to expand rapid testing at schools with multiple cases of COVID-19, for students and staff who do not have symptoms.
Calling it a "test-to-stay" approach, the government says the plan will reduce the need to shut down schools where there's been an outbreak by frequent testing over a two-week period. Under the program, students would be tested five times on alternating days over a period of 10 days, Lecce said.
Public health units can decide whether to use additional rapid testing or whether it's best to close an affected school, Lecce told reporters Thursday.
The move is an expansion of a plan announced earlier this month by Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore. That plan gave local public health units the discretion to request rapid tests for unvaccinated, asymptomatic children who are not considered high-risk contacts of a positive COVID-19 case.
The government also announced Thursday it will require unvaccinated school staff to undergo rapid antigen testing three times per week, an increase from the current twice weekly testing regime.
That's a signal the government is not preparing to impose a mandatory vaccination rule for teachers and other education staff.
Earlier this week, Lecce said up to 50,000 education workers would face being fired if such a rule were put in place. That's about one-sixth of the province's education workforce, which is roughly the proportion who have not declared they are fully vaccinated.
Critics said imposing a vaccination mandate would compel many of those unvaccinated education workers to get their shots.
Plans for 2nd term still being finalized
Asked about what he envisions for schools come springtime, Lecce said: "Our trajectory as a province given the high rates of vaccines is promising but we are not letting our guard [down]."
Lecce added the province is in discussions with the chief medical officer of health on what the second term of school might look like and is working to finalize advice.
As for whether schools will see public health measures relaxed around the same time as other sectors under the province's reopening framework, Lecce didn't quite say.
"My commitment to parents in the province is to follow the best medical advice to achieve the objectives of keeping the schools as safe as possible ... in addition to creating a more normal learning experience."
Similarly, asked if schools will also lift mask mandates at the end of March, Moore told reporters Ontario will be "very conservative" in school settings..
"I think we'll have a very guarded approach," he said at a news conference.
Lecce was also asked Thursday why First Nation schools will have access to tests but not menstrual products, a move criticized by at least one northern Ontario MPP.
"We want to keep all students safe in a public health crisis that is COVID-19 ... We want to keep these settings safe from potential transmission," he responded.
The latest provincial figures show two of Ontario's 4,844 schools closed as a result of COVID-19 infections. The Ministry of Education data shows that 90 per cent of schools do not have any active confirmed cases.
According to provincial vaccination statistics, 77.8 per cent of Ontario kids aged 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated, while 83.6 per cent of this age group have received at least one dose.