The province’s school testing program continues to report low numbers of COVID-19 cases, statistics obtained by the Star show.
Of 3,706 tests conducted, 32 new cases were found. The testing began in late January in Ottawa and Sudbury, and in February in those two public health regions plus Toronto, Peel and Hamilton.
While most of the staff, students or family members who were tested were asymptomatic, some areas also tested those with symptoms.
All 72 Ontario school boards have plans and sites to ramp up testing this coming week — now that all students in the province are back in class in person and the province has mandated they cover five per cent of schools each week at a minimum, and two per cent of students.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said when the voluntary testing program is fully up and running by boards and public health units, some 50,000 tests will be completed each week, both the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and rapid tests.
Teacher and education unions and the NDP have been urging the province to expand testing, among other measures, to improve safety in schools as students returned and as new, more contagious COVID variants surface in communities.
The recent results include:
- Testing held in Peel Feb. 12 and 13, for those at 336 schools, where 93 people were tested and one new case identified. (Results for two tests are still pending.)
- In Toronto, testing was held Feb. 11-13 for 40 schools, with 917 tests completed and 11 new cases found.
- In Hamilton, testing done Feb. 13 for two school sites, involving 86 people, found no cases. Another round conducted Feb. 20 at one location, using both PCR and rapid testing, found no cases among the 37 rapid tests.
- In Ottawa, testing was conducted Jan. 30 and 31, Feb. 6 and 7 and Feb 13-15 for 35 schools, with 2,336 tests done and 20 cases found.
- In Sudbury, testing for three schools was held between Jan. 29 and Feb. 3, with 274 tests finding no new cases.
According to the province’s school COVID-case tracking website, as of Feb. 19 some 255 of Ontario’s 4,828 schools had at least one case, and currently five schools are closed because of outbreaks. Some 80 new cases were reported last Friday, with 64 in students and 16 in staff. In total, 365 cases have been reported across the province in the past two weeks.
The risk of in-person schooling and the role schools play in the transmission of COVID-19 continues to be a topic of much debate. A recent Star investigation reported that some of the public health regions where students were returning to bricks-and-mortar schooling earlier this month would fall under higher-risk categories by standards set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention given their numbers at the time (those numbers have since dropped).
Last week, Lecce said that “at the end of the day, we just want to make sure we have a stronger presence, which is why we’ve required to hit that five per cent target (at minimum) and we’ll be working directly with the boards of public health units on the ground to deploy it.”
A government source said that with almost 4,000 tests completed in recent days with a positivity rate of less than one per cent it “is promising and demonstrates schools are safe places for learning, (but) it only underscores the importance of keeping our guard up. Continuing to follow public health guidelines and avoiding congregation after school and on weekends is key to keeping schools open and safe.”
Last December, when the province first rolled out the asymptomatic testing pilot, 57 cases were found in 3,600 tests done in Peel, York, Toronto and Ottawa. Almost half of those cases were discovered at one school.