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Province expanding asymptomatic testing for students, encourage outdoor teaching

Students going to school at TDSB.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced additional safety measures including mandatory cleaning of schools during the spring break, offering asymptomatic COVID-19 tests at assessment centres from April 12 to 18, refresher training on safety protocols, broadening mandatory screening requirements before entering schools, and encouraging outdoor education.

Students in Ontario were previously only qualified for asymptomatic testing if deemed a close contact of a positive case during a COVID-19 outbreak.

Under a new stay-at-home order the province announced Wednesday, schools will remain open for in-class learning unless a local public health unit decides otherwise.

“Nothing is more important than keeping Ontario’s schools safe and open for students, staff, and their families,” said Lecce.

“That’s why we are introducing additional health and safety measures to protect against COVID-19 while working hard to get our education workers vaccinated. Our students deserve a safe return to their classrooms on April 19 so that they can keep learning, and we are committed to delivering on that.”

RELATED: York Region District School Board calls for move to online learning, vaccination of teachers

Under the Ford government’s plan, expanded access to asymptomatic testing will be available for students and staff at pharmacies that offer it and in 180 assessment centres across the province for the week of April 12-18.

Lecce, who has long advocated for keeping schools open, said any education worker who lives or works in a Toronto or Peel Region postal code identified as having a high rate of infection will be eligible during the April break.

“I just want to assure every worker in the province in our schools, driving our buses and helping to protect our kids: You are going to get access to the vaccine, full stop.”

Vaccinations will start with priority neighborhoods in Toronto and Peel, then rolling out to priority neighborhoods in other hot spot regions, including York, Ottawa, Hamilton, Halton, and Durham.

The province says this will be followed by a rollout across the province as supply allows.

Ontario’s teacher unions have repeatedly called for the mass vaccination of all education workers and more protection in schools.

RELATED: Stephen Lecce’s office says teacher unions are stoking fear about school safety

Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday, union leaders said online learning should be adopted across the province until the safety of staff and students can be guaranteed.

“Education workers, who are the very soul of our schools, are finally getting the recognition and support they deserve,” said Warren Thomas. “We are thrilled to see our hard-fought advocacy pay off and commend the government for listening to front-line workers.”

Premier Doug Ford says if there is a vaccine supply, 40 percent of Ontarian adults could be vaccinated by the end of the stay-at-home order.

As it stands, the order is set to be lifted on May 6.

Toronto Public Health issued a Section 22 order and made an announcement to close schools on Tuesday; one day after Peel Public Health became the first local health unit to recommend schools be closed for in-person learning due to COVID-19 concerns.

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