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Education minister criticized for low COVID-19 testing in Ontario schools

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Education Minister Stephen Lecce faced pointed questions from the opposition at Queen’s Park on Wednesday related to the Ontario government’s plan for asymptomatic coronavirus testing among students and educators.

Capacity currently exists to process approximately 50,000 tests at schools a week, but much of that capacity remains underutilized.

“The fact that they are so slow in terms of the asymptomatic testing in schools is really troubling when we know that there continue to be more and more cases in schools,” Ontario NDP education critic Marit Stiles said during question period.

Right now, 24 schools in Ontario are closed due to COVID-19 and 672 currently have at least one case reported.

READ MORE: Ontario COVID-19 school testing program finds 0.86% positivity rate among 3,706 tests

On Monday in Scarborough, Donwood Park Public School was forced to close its doors after six students tested positive for coronavirus. Four of those students tested positive for a variant of concern. The cases were, however, identified through community testing and not through asymptomatic testing at the school as Donwood is not equipped to do tests.

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Lecce said the government is doing what it can to encourage all students and educators that have access to testing to get one but cannot force tests upon individuals.

“This government has gone out of its way to make testing inconvenient and now they are blaming parents and kids,” Stiles said in response to Lecce.

Lecce shot back Stiles and said she has “gone out of her way to instil fear in the people of Ontario because honestly, you have 99.5 per cent of schools in the province that are open.”

“I was shocked that the government’s response today in question period was basically to blame parents and families because this is all voluntary and parents and families are the ones dropping the ball here,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told Global News later in the day.

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“The minister of education and the premier are dropping the ball here.”

A fuller picture of the spread of COVID-19 in schools still remains unclear.

Ministry officials noted 17,835 tests were completed the week of Feb. 22 across Ontario for youth under the age of 18, but that number is based on tests done in the community and not part of asymptomatic school testing.

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Lecce’s spokesperson Caitlin Clark told Global News “We should not politicize a human health pandemic. Our government will continue to ensure children receive testing when they need it”

Clark also noted “With thousands of additional in-school tests we are making the experience easy for working parents. We will continue to encourage voluntary testing and ensure it remains easy to use, local, and less invasive.”

Jessica Lyons, a representative with the group Ontario Parent Action Network, said Lecce’s comments during question period amount to blame-shifting when the government has yet to deliver a solid plan for schools.

“That is exactly the kind of individualistic and non-systemic understanding that is keeping us in the kind of mess that we are in,” she said.

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Lyons said she believes politics may be playing a part when it comes to more robust and targeted testing of schools.

“We know that if they had a mind to do a community-based, broad, effective program that would actually get us some data that would actually show us what’s happening in schools,” she said.

“I think the government is afraid of that. They do not want that data to exist and that’s why they are not implementing a program that will get us that data.”

Sam Hammond, the president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said his members are worried.

“We are becoming increasingly concerned about what’s happening in our schools,” he said.

“If you look at some 800 COVID cases in schools in the last two weeks I think today there were 116 cases, more than 20 schools have shut down completely.”

As of the time of publication, 6,659 asymptomatic tests in Ontario schools had been completed over the previous seven days.

Education ministry officials insisted the number of tests will grow substantially once new data is inputted into the system and publicly available Friday.

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© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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