TORONTO — Students and staff in Ontario schools will each eventually get two rapid tests to use if they develop COVID-19 symptoms, but won’t know if vast numbers of their peers and colleagues are off sick until a third of the school is absent.
The province is anticipating many staff will have to be in isolation at various times after school returns in person on Monday due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant, and is planning for some remote days, combining classes and using teacher candidates.
Critics have raised safety concerns about the return-to-school plan since the government has constrained access to PCR tests and stopped reporting data on cases in schools, as the Omicron variant drives up infections at record levels.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Wednesday that access to rapid tests will "empower" families given the situation.
"That is going to be layer of protection that we didn’t have," he told reporters. "That is going to help empower parents with greater certainty to know if they have the virus."
People with symptoms are to use two tests 24 to 48 hours apart and can return to school after negative results once their symptoms improve.
Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's top doctor, also said the plan was "empowering," adding that it will help people get back to school sooner if the tests come back negative and cause fewer disruptions.
Lecce said the first round of 3.9 million testsare currently being shipped out. They will go first to staff, then to children in daycares and students in public elementary schools.
He said high school students will get the tests on an "as-needs basis" to start, and students in those schools will ideally get two tests each, once the province gets more of its expected supply from the federal government.
On Wednesday, the province also shared plans to deal with anticipated staff absences from Omicron variant cases — one of the factors, along with a rise in hospitalizations, that Premier Doug Ford cited when he announced the closure on Jan. 3.
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 next Monday.
As an option to help deal with staffing challenges, the government said it is changing the requirements for temporary teaching certificates so more teacher candidates can work in schools. The province is also allowing retired teachers to work up to 95 days, up from the previous limit of 50, until the end of June.
Schools will now have to report daily data on staff absences to local public health units to monitor disruptions in schools now that the province has limited access to tests to high-risk settings. Students and staff can only access PCR testing if they develop symptoms while at school.
Officials say public health will notify families if 30 per cent of the school — including staff and students — is absent, though they noted that it will not be confirmed whether all absences are due to COVID-19.
As well, Lecce said the province plans to run more school-based vaccination clinics to increase the vaccination rate for students aged five to 11. As of Wednesday, four per cent of children in that age range had received two vaccine doses and 47 per cent had at least one shot.
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.
"I don't know that these two tests are really going to be helpful in any way except to confirm that their child has picked up COVID-19," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2022.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press