TORONTO — Ontario is keeping a free rapid COVID-19 testing program limited to businesses after parents across the province tried using it for their school-aged kids.
A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said the program was designed to protect workers and allow businesses to safely reopen.
"No additional restrictions have been placed on this program. Rather, we expect agencies to adhere to program parameters as with any government program," Alexandra Hilkene said in a statement Wednesday.
Hilkene also pointed to past comments from the province's top doctor, who has not recommended widespread surveillance testing for COVID-19 in schools.
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer, said Wednesday that the province is "reviewing" its use of rapid tests in schools, particularly in high-risk areas, and suggested more news might soon come on the matter.
"I want to assure Ontarians, we are reviewing asymptomatic testing and its possible application to schools across Ontario," he said. He argued that schools are safe with "excellent" protocols in place.
"An asymptomatic testing strategy will only further build confidence and support our school system," he said. "That's absolutely being addressed and stay tuned as we make further announcements on this subject."
Groups of parents had started placing orders for the rapid tests through the provincial program to conduct asymptomatic surveillance testing in their schools. Some said Wednesday that those orders had been cancelled.
Ottawa mom Regina Bateson saw her group's order of 1,000 rapid tests cancelled. She said it's frustrating that the tests can't go toward helping to protect unvaccinated children.
"It's just hard to wrap your head around," Bateson said.
An email to Bateson's group from the organization supplying the tests – which was viewed by The Canadian Press – said the program has to follow provincial guidance, and that the organization didn't have support from the government to distribute the tests beyond workplaces.
"If community centres can order these tests, if businesses can order these tests, and if the province has millions of them ... why aren’t they being used in schools?" Bateson said.
"Schools are the one setting where we have large numbers of unvaccinated people congregating indoors daily, and dining indoors, taking off their masks.”
Children born after 2009 currently aren't eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in Canada. Moore said Wednesday that the province expects Health Canada will be able to review the shots' efficacy in children aged five to 11 in "the next couple of weeks."
Rapid tests are currently offered as an alternative for school staff who are not vaccinated against COVID-19. The province has said education workers who are not fully immunized must take rapid COVID-19 tests twice every week before coming to work, with at least three days between tests.
Calls have been growing from opposition politicians to offer rapid tests to students, too.
The provincial New Democrats said Wednesday that the decision to revoke parents' access to the rapid testing program is a threat to safety in classrooms.
"Parents across the province have stepped up to protect their kids because Doug Ford failed to act. He never should have put families in this terrible position in the first place," NDP education critic Marit Stiles said in a statement.
"If the logistical challenge of rapid testing programs can be managed for businesses it can also be managed to protect students and keep schools open.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2021.
Allison Jones and Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press