TORONTO — Regular testing combined with high levels of COVID-19 vaccination among staff and eligible students should keep Ontario schools safe when they open next month, the province's top doctor said Tuesday.
Dr. Kieran Moore said schools will be monitored in the coming weeks to see if higher rates of vaccination are required among staff, for whom immunization against COVID-19 isn't mandatory.
He also noted that about 75 per cent of students in Grades 9 through 12 have received one dose and second shots are "quickly following up behind them."
Students younger than 12 currently can't be immunized as no vaccine is approved in Canada for that age group.
The province has previously said it is finalizing a COVID-19 vaccination plan for school staff that would require those who aren't vaccinated to get tested for the virus on a regular basis.
Employers in several sectors, including health care and post-secondary education, however, have said they will require proof of vaccination and will not allow testing as an alternative except for medical or human rights reasons.
Asked whether a similar requirement could be imposed on teachers, Moore said he believes the province's immunization policies will work.
"The immunization policies put in place are I hope very effective, by testing in combination of a highly immunized workforce and a highly immunized student population," he said.
"We'll have to reflect and monitor over the coming weeks, as we open schools, on the level of protection in those environments, and whether we have to have higher levels of immunization around."
Meanwhile, vaccinated and asymptomatic students and staff in certain Ontario high schools who are exposed to COVID-19 through an outbreak or cohort will be given an at-home test as part of a pilot project set to begin next month.
"We are doing everything possible to keep students in class, including offering new testing options that are more convenient and accessible for students and families," Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement.
"Following the advice of Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, our government is making more low barrier testing options available — including take-home tests for many high school students — part of our plan to reduce absenteeism and keep kids learning in-class."
A memo from the deputy minister of education sent to directors of education said the pilot is scheduled to run from Sept. 7 to Oct. 29 at targeted schools in 13 public health units across the province.
The document said, however, that participation in the program is voluntary, and students will not be required to disclose their vaccination status in order to receive a testing kit.
The Council of Ontario Directors of Education said schools and boards support the pilot, adding it hopes the findings will inform further testing in schools and communities.
"Our only concerns would be with the lack of consultation on this pilot, including timing. It would have been better for schools if the pilot had been delayed until the second week of school so that principals could focus their energy on the start of school," Tony Pontes, the group's executive director, said in a statement.
Schools will be responsible for handling the completed and packaged test specimens, which will be picked up by a courier, the document said.
High schools were chosen based on the local public health situation, including vaccination rates and recent data on COVID-19 positivity rates, according to the memo. Among them are schools in the Peel Region, Windsor-Essex, Niagara Region, Eastern Ontario and other health units.
Ontario reported 486 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, most of them among people who are not fully vaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said those account for 372 of the new cases, while 114 of the new infections were in people who are fully inoculated with two doses of a vaccine.
The province also logged 18 new deaths from the virus, though it said 16 of them occurred more than two months ago and were being counted now because of a data cleanup.
Provincial data show 295 people were in hospital due to COVID-19, and Elliott said 286 of those are not fully vaccinated or have an unknown vaccination status.
The province said another 156 people were in intensive care because of the virus, 149 of them not fully vaccinated or with an unknown vaccination status.
Elliott said slightly more than 82 per cent of Ontarians over the age of 12 have received one dose of vaccine and just over 75 per cent have received two.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24, 2021.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press