COVID testing to begin in schools in Toronto, Peel, York, Ottawa

The provincial government will start asymptomatic testing for COVID-19 in schools in Toronto, Peel, York and Ottawa, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced Thursday.

Lecce also said that boards — some struggling because of a drop in enrolment due to the pandemic — will not see a corresponding drop in funding that is based on the number of students.

Despite increasing rates of community transmission of COVID, “our schools remain safe,” Lecce said alongside Premier Doug Ford at a press conference at St. Marcellinus secondary school in Mississauga.

“The risk within our schools reflects the risk within our communities,” he said.

Ford also announced the province will provide an extra $ 13.6 million to schools in red-zone COVID regions, meaning up to 175 teachers or 250 caretakers could be hired if boards choose.

“We will spare no expense to keep our students safely in school,” said Ford.

The voluntary testing is meant for students, staff and families in areas experiencing the highest number of active cases of COVID-19.

Surveillance testing has been used in U.S. states including Arkansas, Vermont and Rhode Island, to better understand spread in schools.

All students at Thorncliffe Park Public School, whose parents consent, will be tested, starting Thursday, as part of a partnership with Michael Garron Hospital and the East Toronto Family Practice Network, a network of family doctors in the east end.

The school is in one of the hardest-hit neighbourhoods in the city.

Speaking before the announcement, Dr. Janine McCready, an infectious disease specialist at Michael Garron Hospital, said it’s a way to break down barriers for community members to access tests.

But it’s also a way to understand “what is happening with school transmission,” and if we are “missing cases,” she said.

“There’s so much talk and I don’t think we have as much evidence as we’d really like,” she said. Having a better grasp of the situation can inform policy decisions going forward and allows schools to improve strategies to contain the spread.

One of the province’s worst school outbreaks, is in Windsor, where F.W. Begley elementary was shut down amid 26 cases, a number that has since grown.

Meanwhile, news of the stable education funding grants — known as grants for student needs, or GSNs — would be a welcome relief for boards, given some have seen fewer students show up than expected because of the pandemic.

“This has never happened, where you have had this many kids not show up,” Toronto District School Board chair Alexander Brown has told the Star. “It is a logistical nightmare. And no one knows how to navigate it.”

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The Toronto board has seen a drop of 5,500 students, which would have meant $ 41 million less for the board.

The additional $ 13.6 million is for Durham, Halton, Hamilton and Waterloo area school boards, all experiencing a higher number of COVID-19 cases.

Kristin Rushowy
May Warren

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