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 be notified if their peers and colleagues are off sick until a third of the school is absent.
The province anticipates many staff will have isolate due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant after school returns in-person on Monday, and said some remote learning days, combined classes, and the use of teacher candidates will help deal with the issue.
The rapid tests – which will also go to children and staff in daycares – will "empower" families given the current COVID-19 situation, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Wednesday.
"That is going to be layer of protection that we didn't have," he said. "That is going to help empower parents with greater certainty to know if they have the virus."
Those with symptoms are to use two rapid 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, said the rapid tests will help get staff and students back to school faster if their tests come back negative, leading to fewer disruptions.
Some parents, however, said they weren't satisfied with the government's plan.
"I can't help feeling absolutely powerless with the tools that they put in place," said Ana Constantin.
The Mississauga, Ont., parent said she doesn't feel comfortable sending her 10-year-old son back to school since there will be no more cohorting, COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations remain high, and infections are no longer being consistently reported in schools.
Toronto parent Afrooz Cianfrone, who has two sons in elementary school, said she similarly doesn't feel confident sending her children back to in-person learning given the fact that rapid tests aren't 100 per cent accurate, there won't be HEPA filters in every classroom, and PCR testing won't be available to all students and staff.
But, she said, her sons will be returning because she and her husband can't give them the educational support they need at home.
"I am all for schools being open, I have fought for schools remaining open, however, there should be safety measures put in place, there should be some sort of tracking (of COVID-19)," she said.
Keith Baybayon, a Grade 12 student and president of Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, said students are "exhausted" by having to deal with transitions between in-school and remote learning. He said some students, including himself, feel the measures announced Wednesday aren't enough to ensure a safe return.
"I urge (the government) to listen to students, listen to teachers' unions, listen to teachers, to parents, to every single stakeholder within the education system, because every single opinion of the people who are actually in the system matters," he said.
Lecce said the first round of 3.9 million rapid 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, before getting two tests each after the province gets more of its expected supply from the federal government.
Lecce also outlined plans to deal with anticipated staff absences due to COVID-19 – one of the factors, along with a rise in hospitalizations, that Premier Doug Ford cited when he announced the two-week move to virtual school on Jan. 3.
School boards can rotate between in-person and remote days or combine classes, if needed, to minimize closures driven by virus-related staff absences. The government is also changing requirements for temporary teaching certificates so more teacher candidates can work in schools, and 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 have to report daily data on absences to local public health units to monitor disruptions now that the province has limited access to PCR testing. Students and staff can only access those tests if they develop symptoms while at school.
Public health units will notify families if 30 per cent of a school — including staff and students — is absent, though officials noted that it will not be confirmed whether all absences are due to COVID-19.
They also said principals have to report daily absences to the education ministry, which will also be reported as part of the province's COVID-19 data online.
The province also 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.
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said her association is pleased that the government is implementing some long-called for measures, including rapid tests for students and N95 masks for teachers.
"We know there's some anxiety out there amongst our teachers and our parents and trustees ... We feel like schools and school boards are going to be doing everything they can possibly do to keep schools as safe as they possibly can be."
The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario said it was continuing to call on the government to improve ventilation and install HEPA filters in all classrooms and shared spaces in schools, and implement "robust" testing and contact tracing programs, among other measures.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government's plan was not detailed enough to inspire confidence for families and noted that the rapid tests will not help prevent infections.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2022.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press