COVID-19 testing centres won't be crowded when schools return, OPH says

The influx of students and staff at COVID-19 testing centres led to long lines and wait times in September 2020, but Ottawa Public Health says changes have been made to avoid that same problem when schools reopen next month.

Take-home testing to be available for staff, students come September

Children and their parents spent many hours lined up to get tested for COVID-19 at Ottawa's Brewer Arena after school returned in September 2020. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

When schools opened in September 2020, COVID-19 testing centres were overwhelmed by children, school staff and child-care workers forced to get tested for symptoms like a runny nose, but Ottawa Public Health says the situation will be much improved this time.

Last fall, patients would wait up to four hours in line for a test, while some would have to wait days. Dr. Vera Etches says that won't be the case this time around. 

"Things have improved since last fall. The laboratory capacity was also a significant barrier in terms of the number of lab tests that could be processed, so that's good in a background," said Etches, the city's chief medical officer of health, said at a news conference Thursday morning.

Etches also said schools will offer take-home tests, which was experimented with at the end of last school year with students with special needs who were still attending class.

At the first sign of a symptom, the test can determine whether a person has COVID-19.

"The take home testing will take some pressure off the assessment centres so people get the test, and do that themselves, but the labs are still going to have to process the volume," Etches said. 

Schools in the city are less than a month away from returning to in-person learning, and the rollout of the take home testing isn't entirely clear yet. 

"We would be starting where we think there may be more barriers for people to get to a testing centre to make that available in those schools first, but ultimately reaching all schools," said Etches.

Take home tests hopefully in all schools soon

The take home tests will be offered as part of a staged implementation across different school boards in different areas. The goal is to get these tests to all schools in the city, but that won't happen the first week back.

OPH recommends schools keep track of cohorts so when someone does test positive, the cohort can be monitored.

Etches says it will also be important to know who is vaccinated and who isn't in order to determine who will need to self-isolate if they come in close contact with the person who tests positive. 

Staff members and students are still asked to stay home and get tested should they experience any symptoms. The mask mandate also remains in place for students in Grade 1 to Grade 12. 


  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Ontario's school mask mandate applied to kindergarten students. In fact, the mandate applies to students in Grade 1 and up.
    Aug 20, 2021 6:20 AM ET


Celeste Decaire

CBC Reporter

Celeste Decaire is a reporter with CBC Ottawa. She can be reached at and on her Twitter account @celestedecaire.


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