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Ontario promises improvements to pandemic safety plan before schools reopen

Education Minister Stephen Lecce says another element of the plan is to conduct testing of asymptomatic students and staff.
Jan. 11, 2021

The Ontario government’s plan to improve pandemic safety precautions before reopening school buildings will include more money for ventilation, COVID-19 testing, PPE, custodians and other staff, Education Minister Stephen Lecce says.

Lecce provided few details other than brief comments during a media conference and his office said no more information was forthcoming Friday.

Ontario promises improvements to pandemic safety plan before schools reopen
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Announcements are probably coming soon, though, on how the government will spend $380 million in federal funding promised in January as the second half of an aid package to improve school safety. On Thursday, the Ministry of Education said it recommended that $80 million of the federal money be used for more laptops, tablets and other technology for schools.

Lecce said the remainder of the money would be “principally focused on HVAC and air ventilation improvements, on additional PPE, on custodial and cleaning staff and just more staffing in general.”

Lecce said the government was committed to reopening schools, but wanted to ensure they were safe.

Elementary and secondary students are slated to return to bricks-and-mortar schools in southern Ontario, including Ottawa, on Jan. 25. Students in northern Ontario are scheduled to return Jan. 11.

The province announced Thursday that it would extend remote learning at home for southern Ontario elementary students, who were originally supposed to return to school on Jan. 11, for another two weeks.

The province is experiencing record numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths. The number of school-age children with lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 has risen since late November, and the percentage of tests coming back positive among children has spiked.

Lecce says another element of the plan to improve safety when children go back to bricks-and-mortar schools is to conduct testing of asymptomatic students and staff.

Testing will provide a better picture of the prevalence of COVID-19 in schools, identify people who have the illness with no symptoms and help control outbreaks.

A four-week pilot project of pop-up testing was conducted at schools in Ottawa, York, Peel and Toronto before the holiday break.

That will be expanded across Ontario, Lecce said.

“All public health units will be eligible, will have the capacity and the testing kits required to do that type of surveillance testing, meaning that we’re going well beyond the four highest-risk regions that exist today.”

Further details were requested, such as where testing would begin and what the goal was for the number of tests. “The Minister’s statement today stands,” Lecce’s spokesperson said.

As of Dec. 18, the pilot testing found 57 cases of COVID-19 among 3,654 tests completed, with results of another 890 tests pending. Students, staff and their family members were tested. The province did not provide a breakdown of results among each of those groups.

Some of the four local health units conducting the testing, including Ottawa Public Health, chose not to provide information about what schools were involved because of the fear of stigma surrounding COVID-19.

Lecce also said there would be “additional enhancements to our screening protocol.” No details were provided.

Students and staff are now required to screen themselves for symptoms of COVID-19 before coming to school each day.

When schools reopened in September, anyone with mild symptoms such as a sniffly nose was required to stay home for two weeks or until they received a negative COVID-19 test result. There were hours’ long lineups at some COVID-19 assessment centres and delays in getting test results, forcing children to miss school and parents to stay home with them.

The screening was relaxed in early Oct. 1.