Targeted COVID-19 Rapid Antigen Screening to Keep Students Safe
TORONTO — Ontario is improving access to local targeted COVID-19 rapid antigen screening by making it available for students through participating public health units where risk of transmission is high. By expanding access to rapid antigen screening, the Ontario government is helping to keep schools and licensed child care settings open and safe for children and students. The program will support access to voluntary, rapid asymptomatic screening for unvaccinated children and students. This will help identify and prevent transmission in schools and licensed child care settings, as identified by local medical officers of health based on local epidemiological circumstances. This school-based program is in keeping with current provincial guidance for rapid antigen screening and based on advice from Public Health Ontario, the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, and Ontario’s Testing Strategy Expert Panel and is focused on screening of children in public health units with the highest risk of transmission. Routine rapid antigen screening of fully vaccinated individuals and children is not currently recommended given the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines as well as the risks posed to the disruption of learning as a result of false positives. "By improving ventilation in Ontario schools and taking further action through the introduction of a targeted rapid antigen screening program, we are helping to keep schools safer and open,” said Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education. “We are following updated advice from the Chief Medical Officer of Health by introducing a targeted testing program, at the direction of local medical officers of health, in areas where rates of transmission are high. Ontario’s plan is focused on minimizing disruption and maximizing safe, in-class learning, supported by major improvements in mechanical ventilation and 70,000 HEPA and other ventilation devices in learning spaces.” While vaccines and existing classroom prevention strategies – such as masking, cohorting and daily symptom screening measures – remain key defences against COVID-19, screening and testing remain important tools in protecting against the spread of COVID-19. In addition, in September 2021, the Ministry of Education launched a targeted, PCR-based self-collection pilot for vaccinated high school students identified as high-risk close contacts of a confirmed case of COVID-19 to support testing participation and a timely return to school. Limiting the spread of COVID-19 is critical to ensuring that schools and child care centres remain safe and open to support working families. “Targeted asymptomatic screening has the potential to detect cases in schools earlier and reduce the risk of outbreaks and closures, particularly in communities across the province that have a high prevalence of active COVID-19 cases,” said Dr. Kieran Moore, Chief Medical Officer of Health. “Expanding access to rapid antigen screening may be another way to help keep schools safer and students in the classroom. I continue to encourage everyone who has yet to get their first or second dose of the COVID-19 vaccination to do so as soon as you can to increase our level of community immunity and protect our students and young Ontarians who are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine.” COVID-19 rapid antigen screening for child care and school age children will proceed as follows:
Based on the guidance of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, local Medical Officers of Health will continue to monitor local COVID-19 transmission and vaccination rates to identify when to implement rapid antigen screening in parts of their region based on local factors and needs.
Rapid antigen screening will be used only for unvaccinated asymptomatic students and children who are not high-risk contacts. Symptomatic or high-risk contacts should continue to access lab-based PCR testing available at assessment centres and other collection centres.
Where the local public health unit has identified schools or child care centres that would benefit from this screening, rapid antigen screening tests will be made available. Parents will be able to choose if their unvaccinated asymptomatic children will participate in this screening offered by their schools or licensed child care settings.
Unvaccinated children participating in the program will be able to conduct the rapid antigen screening at home with instructions.
Children who receive a positive result will be required to seek a confirmatory lab-based PCR test at a local assessment centre or specimen collection centre and isolate until the result of that lab-based PCR test is known. Children who receive a negative result on a rapid antigen screening test will be able to continue in-person learning. More detailed information including duration and frequency will follow.
The Ministry of Education will continue to work with the Chief Medical Officer of Health and local public health units to assess key indicators, such as vaccination rates and community transmission, to inform and update provincial guidance for schools and child care as needed.
Widespread use of asymptomatic screen testing is not recommended since best evidence and current guidance suggest that asymptomatic screen testing is only effective in limited circumstances, such as with high community COVID-19 transmission.
More than 81 per cent of youth aged 12 to 17 have received a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 73 per cent have received a second dose.
Ontario issued a preferential recommendation of the use of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for individuals aged 18 to 24 years old. The province will continue using the Pfizer vaccine for youth ages 12 to 17 (including those turning 12 in 2021).
On August 16, 2021, the Ontario government announced that it is working with public health units and publicly funded school boards to plan and host vaccination clinics for educators and staff in or nearby schools to continue to fight COVID-19.
In 2021-22, Ontario will continue to provide temporary COVID-19 funding of more than $1.6 billion to school boards throughout the year. This will provide schools with a wide range of supports for student mental health, the hiring of additional staff, school-focused nurses in public health units, remote learning technology, and health and safety measures in student transportation.
Ontario is also making available $85.5 million for learning recovery and renewal to help schools across the province mitigate the effects of learning disruptions as a result of COVID-19. This investment will support student mental health and well-being, reading and math for young learners, and student re-engagement.
Testing is available in 202 assessment centres or community labs, 211 pharmacies, mobile sites and other locations across the province. Ontario can process over 100,000 lab-based PCR tests per day if needed.
Anyone with symptoms or who is a known close contact of someone with COVID-19, and other groups that meet provincial testing eligibility criteria, should make an appointment at an assessment centre, participating pharmacy, or specimen collection centre. Please visit Ontario.ca/covidtest to find a testing location and for eligibility criteria to be tested.
High risk contacts are individuals who are identified by public health units as a close contact of a confirmed COVID-19 case.
Parents and caregivers who have questions about COVID-19 vaccines for children and youth can visit www.sickkids.ca/vaccineconsult to book a confidential phone appointment with a SickKids clinician.