OHS Canada Magazine

Rapid tests key to reopening remaining Ontario schools: Williams

Learning in several regions has been online since January


By Shawn Jeffords

TORONTO — Ontario plans to bring rapid COVID-19 testing to its schools but online learning in some regions may need to continue until that measure can be implemented, the province’s top doctor said Friday.

Dr. David Williams said the rapid tests will allow for greater surveillance of the virus and will help students return to in-person learning across the province.

Schools in several regions of southern Ontario — including the Greater Toronto Area and Windsor — have been entirely online since the beginning of January, and the government has said it hoped to open them for in-person learning by Feb. 10.

Williams said Friday, however, that the rapid testing may not be available by that date.

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“We’re going to utilize those (tests) as best we can to make sure the schools, when they open, are safe,” he said. “We want this extra amount of screening being done to make sure we’re not missing anything.”

The province is working with all health units to set up the rapid testing system, Williams said, adding that he wants it to be convenient for parents, unlike the long lineups seen at COVID-19 testing centres last fall.

“We want this to be quick, convenient, and easily accessible,” he said.

All students in Ontario began the new year with online classes as part of a provincial lockdown.

The government has been reopening schools at staggered intervals over the past few weeks, starting with northern and rural areas were virus case rates remain low.

Premier Doug Ford said Friday that the province wants children to return to class as soon as possible but would not commit to the previous Feb. 10 reopening target.

“Our goal, ultimately, is to get the kids back into the classroom,” he said. “Prior to the Christmas Break, that was the safest place for the kids.”

The president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said Friday that rapid testing should have been implemented in schools much earlier.

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“As of Monday there will be close to (400,000) students back in classes and the medical officer of health confirmed today that they still haven’t figured out exactly how to implement rapid testing for students and staff,” Hammond said in an online statement.

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said he has been calling on the Ford government to use rapid testing in schools, long-term care homes, and essential work places for months.

“I’m relieved to learn that Doug Ford has seen the light and has finally decided to introduce the antigen rapid tests in our most vulnerable settings,” he said in a statement, calling for a transparent plan on how the tests will be used.

Cases of COVID-19 have been declining in Ontario but the government has warned that the spread of a more contagious variant poses a significant threat.

On Friday, the province said that in light of the detection of variant cases, it was not currently considering lifting strict public health measures until at least Feb. 9, when a state of emergency is set to expire.

“Any lifting of public health and workplace safety measures must be considered very carefully, until more information on the variants, and overall trends in public health indicators are lower,” Health Minister Christine Elliott said.

Tests for international travellers

The province also announced Friday that it will make all international travellers take a COVID-19 test on arrival starting Monday.

Ford said the province will move forward with the traveller testing despite a similar federal program announced Friday that’s set to ramp up in the coming weeks.

The premier has repeatedly called on the federal government to bring in mandatory testing for travellers as variant strains of COVID-19 spread around the world.

Ford praised the prime minister for announcing the new federal testing plan, but said Ontario will conduct its own traveller testing until Ottawa’s program kicks in.

The testing order will come into effect Monday at Toronto’s Pearson International airport, and will also eventually apply to the province’s land border crossings to the United States.

Ontario’s Solicitor General said that anyone who refuses to comply with the mandatory testing will be fined $750.

The province reported 1,837 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and 58 more deaths related to the virus.

The government also reported that at least 51 cases of the U.K. variant had been recorded in the province so far.