The province is making a bid to put a curb on COVID-19 cases in school systems by rolling out rapid antigen screening kits, which aims to add an extra layer of defence for both students and classrooms.
The program, announced this week, will be made available for students through participating public health units where the risk of transmission is high. By expanding access to rapid antigen screening, the province says it is helping to keep schools and licensed childcare settings open and safe for children and students.
However, the program hasn’t been popular with everyone. The Ontario NDP has criticized the government’s move, saying it has come too late. “Many parents who have been fighting for rapid testing in schools will be anxiously waiting to see if their schools will be included in the rollout of this strategy.
They’re desperate to prevent the kind of disruptions and turmoil their kids went through last year,” NDP education critic Marit Stiles said Tuesday. “Ontario families deserve equitable access to rapid testing in schools, and today’s announcement comes far later than it should have.”
The program will support access to voluntary, rapid asymptomatic screening for unvaccinated children and students, with the intent of identifying and preventing transmission in schools and licensed childcare settings, as identified by local medical officers of health based on local epidemiological circumstances.
The program was built in conjunction with the province’s science advisory table, said Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore. Currently, routine rapid antigen screening of fully vaccinated individuals and children is not recommended given the impact of vaccines, as well as the risks posed to the disruption of learning as a result of false positives.
“By improving ventilation in Ontario schools and taking further action through the introduction of a targeted rapid antigen screening program, we are helping to keep schools safer and open,” said Minister of Education Stephen Lecce. Lecce added, “We are following updated advice from the Chief Medical Officer of Health by introducing a targeted testing program, at the direction of local medical officers of health, in areas where rates of transmission are high.”
Lecce went on to say that the province’s plan is based on minimizing disruption and “maximizing safe, in-class learning, supported by major improvements in mechanical ventilation and 70,000 HEPA and other ventilation devices in learning spaces.”
Last month, the Ministry of Education launched a targeted, PCR-based self-collection pilot for vaccinated high school students identified as high-risk close contacts of a confirmed case of COVID-19 to support testing participation and a timely return to school. Limiting the spread of COVID-19 is critical to ensuring that schools and childcare centres remain safe and open to support working families, said Moore. “Expanding access to rapid antigen screening may be another way to help keep schools safer, and students in the classroom.“