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.