Ontario students are slated to get two rapid antigen tests when they return to school on Monday, but apart from that, the province is relying mostly on previously announced measures to keep schools safe amid the Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The province also revealed Wednesday that school officials will monitor absenteeism in classrooms as opposed to reporting individual positive tests.
Officials said parents would be notified when combined student and staff absences hit around 30 per cent, prompting concerns that parents would be left in the dark about their child's school's status until it reached that threshold.
By Wednesday evening, the province appeared to say it would provide parents with more specific data about absenteeism.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the province has "strong protections in place" that are "fully supported" by Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore.
"We believe so strongly that children need to be in school," Lecce said.
WATCH | Lecce says province made 'good use of time':
The province is touting updated screening, new shipments of masks, ventilation improvements, vaccinations, new hires and time-limited cohorting protocols as the pillars of its plan to restart in-person learning.
The details of the plan are in the document at the bottom of this story. The vast majority of the measures included in it had already been announced.
The antigen tests will be distributed starting next week, first to staff, then to children in daycares and students in public elementary schools, followed by high school students pending availability. Officials say more tests will be provided when supply allows.
'Empowering' for families
Those with symptoms are to use two tests 24 to 48 hours apart, and can return to school after negative results once their symptoms improve.
Moore said this distribution of rapid tests will be "empowering" for parents and students, as opposed to previous PCR testing, due to their convenience.
Ontario school boards can rotate between in-person and remote days or combine classes, if needed, to minimize school closures driven by virus-related staff absences when schools reopen.
Schools will have to report daily on staff absences to local public health units to monitor disruptions in schools, given limited access to tests. Ontario recently changed its rules about who can be tested, with officials citing a need to conserve testing for high-risk settings as the Omicron variant continues to surge.
Moore has said hospitalization rates are now one of the most important metrics for the province to analyze, given case counts no longer give any sort of representation of overall transmission in Ontario. The province reported a new high of 3,448 patients in hospital with COVID-19 on Wednesday, a jump of over 1,000 from the same day last week.
Of those hospitalized, 54 per cent were admitted seeking treatment for COVID-19, while 45 per cent were for other reasons but later tested positive for the illness, according to data from the Ministry of Health. That data does not list a breakdown for previous waves of the virus for comparison.
As of Wednesday, there are 505 people with COVID-19 in ICUs, up from 477 the day before and 288 one week ago.
Approximately 83 per cent were admitted to the ICU seeking treatment for COVID-19 and 17 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have tested positive for the illness, according to the dataset.
Vaccination rate for kids hits plateau
Moore was asked at a news conference about low uptake levels of vaccinations for children. The province's immunization rate for the five- to 11-year olds has stalled at 45 per cent.
He said despite that, the province is not planning to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory at schools.
"It is a new vaccine, and as a result of that we want greater experience with it before we mandate it," he said.
Moore followed up with a statement Wednesday evening stressing the vaccines are safe.
"I want to be clear that the pediatric Pfizer vaccine for children five to 11 is safe, effective and provides strong protection against COVID-19 and variants," he said.
The province also announced Wednesday it will launch school-based vaccine clinics during instructional hours to encourage voluntary vaccination for children ages five to 11.
"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," officials said in a news release.
Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government's announcement was not detailed enough to inspire confidence for families. She also noted that the rapid test plan will not help prevent infections.
"It certainly doesn't empower parents when you're providing them with information only after the fact," she said. "Not letting parents know when there are outbreaks in schools, when kids are coming down with COVID-19, or teachers or staff are coming down with COVID-19, not having any of that outbreak information is not empowering for parents."
Moore faces criticism
Horwath also said she was troubled to hear Moore talking about wanting more experience with the vaccine before mandating it for children.
"We know all along that this government has coddled anti-vaxxers," she said.
The NDP has been calling for COVID-19 vaccines to be added to the list of mandatory vaccines for school-age children for some time.
Liberal Leader Steven del Duca had a similar message, saying Moore's statement fed "vaccine hesitancy."
"As the province's top doctor, he should be fighting that, not feeding it. If he doesn't clarify his comments, he should go."
The Liberals are also calling for a number of immediate steps, including: adding COVID-19 vaccinations to the list of universal immunizations for students, resuming exposure notifications and case reporting in schools, a vaccine mandate for all education and child-care workers, and passing a bill to give workers 10 paid sick days so that parents can isolate if their children are exposed to the coronavirus.
With the Ontario Legislature not set to resume for another 41 days, Del Duca is also pushing the government for an early recall.
The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario also weighed in, calling on the province to reinstate monitoring and reporting of COVID-19 cases and outbreaks in schools, reduce class sizes to promote physical distancing and ensure everyone working in or attending a school who can be safely vaccinated is vaccinated.
Premier Doug Ford previously pointed to the growing pressure on hospitals and a coming "tsunami" of COVID-19 cases when he announced the temporary shift to online learning on Jan. 3, which he had said would last until at least Jan. 17, depending on health indicators at the time.
Though they have been asked more than once at news conferences this week, provincial officials have not shared what metrics have changed to make them feel that a return to in-person learning is safer than it was last week.
Moore noted the overall infection risk is high in the community right now.
"Schools will reflect what is going on in the community," he said.