TORONTO — Ontario won't be adding COVID-19 vaccinations to the list of immunizations for students to attend school, but the province's top doctor says he'll be exercising caution when it comes to lifting public health measures in schools.
Dr. Kieran Moore said Thursday it would be an additional burden to public health agencies, parents and children to add COVID-19 shots to the list of vaccinations students must report.
"We have to look at the trends and the ongoing threat of this virus," he said. "If it persists season after season and is an ongoing threat, at that point we would review with government the integration of COVID vaccination status into the (law)."
Moore said the government is working with boards and public health units to compile the vaccination status of students to enable better contact tracing and outbreak management.
Schools have been "very, very safe," Moore said, and he suggested that just because Ontario is aiming to remove restrictions including mask mandates in March in public settings, that doesn't mean schools will.
"I think we'll be extra cautious in the school setting as we follow any reduction in public health measures," Moore said.
Ontario reported 80 new school-related cases Thursday, with 984 reported in the past two weeks.
The Children's Health Coalition, representing children's hospitals and health organizations such as SickKids and the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, said recently that almost 80 per cent of cases in school-aged children have been traced to sources other than school outbreaks.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced what he called an additional layer of protection Thursday, saying that starting in a few weeks, take-home COVID-19 tests will be available at all public schools across Ontario.
The PCR tests have been available in schools in Toronto and Ottawa, and some other communities in a similar pilot project, but Lecce said now all students in public schools will have access.
"By enabling students to pick up a PCR self-collection kit at school, the program will help address barriers for students who have challenges with quickly obtaining a test at a testing centre when they're symptomatic, or have been identified as a close contact of a confirmed COVID-19 case," he said.
"The take-home approach will also provide convenience for parents and for families and help to potentially identify more cases to keep the schools open and safe."
If a student develops a COVID-19 symptom or is identified as a close contact of a positive case, they can pick up a test at their school, do it at home and drop it off at a community location for processing, eliminating the need to book an appointment at an assessment centre to get tested.
Lecce also announced that unvaccinated education workers will have to undergo rapid antigen testing three times a week instead of two.
The minister said earlier this week that up to 50,000 education workers could be fired if COVID-19 vaccines were mandated for that sector. The figure includes workers such as teachers, educational assistants, early childhood educators, principals, board staff, occasional staff and custodians, who are unvaccinated or won't disclose their status.
The province also unveiled an expanded rapid testing program Thursday that would see students do regular tests over 10 days if officials are otherwise contemplating a whole-school dismissal due to high cases.
Earlier this month, the chief medical officer of health announced that rapid tests would be made available to schools in areas of the province with high transmission. The expansion announced Thursday is for a more targeted use.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2021.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press