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Ontario's COVID-19 testing system braces for return-to-school effect

As nearly two million Ontario students return to classrooms for the first time in five months, the demand for COVID-19 tests is expected to rise significantly.

In-person classes for up to 2 million students resume for first time since April

Students at Spring Valley Elementary School in Ancaster, Ont. return to in-person learning on Wednesday. They are among the nearly two million Ontario students headed back to in-person classes for the first time since early April, when schools were shut down across the province amid the third wave of COVID-19. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

As nearly two million students return to classrooms for the first time in five months, the demand for COVID-19 tests in Ontario is expected to surge.

The average number of tests conducted daily in the province is currently running at less than half the 60,000 tests-per- day rate when schools were shuttered in early April. Since then, many COVID-19 assessment centres have reduced their hours or shut their doors.  

The resumption of in-person classes, at-school lunches and extra-curricular activities means an increased risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus, particularly for elementary students younger than 12 who cannot be vaccinated.     

Although the province is launching a new take-home COVID-19 testing project this week for some schools, the government is facing criticism that the program is too limited. 

The pilot project by Ontario's Education Ministry will allow students and staff who are identified as at risk of COVID-19 because of exposure to a confirmed case to bring home a testing kit. 

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce says a pilot project for take-home COVID-19 testing kits is 'part of our plan to reduce absenteeism and keep kids learning in-class.' (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

The home-testing pilot program is only for staff and students who are both fully vaccinated and asymptomatic, and only in targeted secondary schools in 13 public health units. That means the vast bulk of students face going to a COVID-19 assessment centre if they wish to be tested in the wake of an exposure. 

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement that the take-home testing kits "are more convenient and accessible for students, families and staff ... part of our plan to reduce absenteeism and keep kids learning in-class."

But NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the scope of the pilot program is inadequate and called for a rapid testing program for all Ontario schools. 

"We aren't seeing the comprehensive in-house testing program that so many have been calling for and that we're seeing in other jurisdictions," said Stiles in an interview Tuesday.

"Are we pulling out all the stops? Are we doing absolutely everything we can to avoid school closures?" Stiles asked. "I feel like at this point, the government is really just doing the bare minimum." 

About 65 per cent of Ontario kids aged 12 to 17 have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 76.5 per cent have received at least one dose, according to the latest figures from the Ministry of Health. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The province's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore pushed back at the criticism.  

"We are doing everything we can to build the safest environment possible to help ensure that our children stay in school for the entire academic year," Moore said Tuesday during his weekly COVID-19 briefing at Queen's Park. 

He said with case rates at the level currently seen in Ontario, broad-based rapid antigen testing of all students across the entire school system would not be an effective or efficient way of slowing the spread of COVID-19.

"We'll use that tool if and when community rates are high, but that's much higher than where we're at right now," said Moore.

The Ford government's at-school testing programs have so far fallen short of what was initially promised. 

COVID-19 precautions in place at Ontario schools will reduce the risk from the highly transmissible delta variant but will not eliminate the risk, says the province's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Back on Feb. 1, Lecce announced plans for targeted COVID-19 testing of asymptomatic staff and students at schools. He said the program would be able to conduct up to 50,000 tests per week.

However, just 64,500 such tests were completed in total through the program during the remainder of the school year, according to data provided Tuesday by the Education Ministry. Far more testing of students was done at the province's COVID-19 assessment centres.  

In September 2020, some of those assessment centres were overwhelmed, families waited in line for hours and lab results were delayed for days because so many children were being sent for testing, in part because of confusion at schools over what symptoms actually warranted a test.

The province is working with local public health units and school boards to monitor vaccination rates at the classroom and school levels as a means of assessing the likelihood that COVID-19 cases will spread in schools. 

Moore called schools "a low-risk environment," but cautioned that the delta variant of COVID-19 is highly transmissible.

"I do think that the precautions that we put in place in Ontario and the investments that we've made are world-class and will reduce the risk, but not eliminate the risk," he said. 

Ontario will once again publicly report the number of positive cases among students and staff at every school, as it did during the 2020-21 school year

About 15,000 positive cases of COVID-19 were reported among students and staff during the 2020-21 school year, according to provincial data. Roughly half of those were detected in the four months from September until schools closed for the winter holiday, and roughly half were reported in the two-month stretch between mid-February and mid-April, when schools across Ontario ceased in-person classes. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C.

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