Ontario officials confirmed Wednesday that vaccinated and unvaccinated children can participate in all the same activities when they go back to school this fall.
Although Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore previously hinted that unvaccinated children may face different isolation requirements if they come into contact with COVID-19 in school, on Wednesday he said all children will be able to participate in the same activities within schools.
“There shouldn’t be any barriers or stigmatization of children who haven’t received a vaccine in normal activities throughout the school year,” he said.
He added the government wouldn’t know each child’s immunization status to impose different rules.
Moore spoke alongside Education Minister Stephen Lecce in Thornhill, where they answered questions about the province’s back-to-school plan following an announcement on new funding for air filtration in schools.
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Children 12 and up are eligible for COVID-19 immunization in Canada, but Lecce confirmed that Ontario will not make vaccination mandatory at this time to return to school.
Vaccines for several other communicable diseases, including measles, polio, and chickenpox, are mandatory to attend school in the province.
For now, the government will focus on encouraging voluntary COVID-19 immunization.
“[Vaccination] is our means of avoiding the fourth wave or a surge in cases,” Moore said.
There may still be different health guidelines for unvaccinated children in the event of an exposure or outbreak at school, but those plans have not yet been released.
Province wants faster COVID-19 test turnaround
Lecce wants to see faster COVID-19 test turnaround times for the 2021-22 school year to reduce absenteeism among students.
He said take-home tests for kids may be permitted, and he’s working to increase testing options for families. He’s heard demands for less invasive test options, and said he’s working to make cheek and saliva swabs more readily available.
Rapid testing in schools has been considered, but public health agencies have ultimately decided it’s too cumbersome in communities with low case rates, Moore said.
Rapid tests have a tendency to give back false positives, and a second PCR test would be needed to confirm if someone is really infected, Moore said. That could create a lot of work if schools were to test asymptomatic individuals regularly.
Instead, the province is focused on making sure COVID-19 assessment centres are accessible for families.
High-contact indoor sports allowed
The Ontario government updated its back-to-school plan Tuesday night to allow high-contact sports indoors.
That means students will be able to play hockey, basketball, and other games in gym class and on school teams.
Moore said he believes the decision is reasonable as long as schools implement screening and students have easy access to COVID-19 testing.
More portable HEPA filters coming to schools
Lecce announced an additional $25 million of funding to improve ventilation in Ontario’s schools.
The money will be used to purchase high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter units for school spaces that don’t have mechanical ventilation. The standalone HEPA units will also be purchased for all kindergarten classes regardless of building ventilation because those younger students aren’t required to wear masks.
Lecce anticipates the new HEPA units will be in place by September.