TORONTO — The province's plan to test asymptomatic students and staff for COVID-19 has uncovered an outbreak in the first school where it was deployed, raising concerns about the spread of the virus in classrooms around the province.
Ontario's health minister downplayed concerns about the findings at the elementary Thorncliffe Park Public School in east Toronto over the weekend, where 270 students and 17 staff are self-isolating as public health investigates the outbreak.
The Toronto District School Board said 21 people - 19 students and two staff - have tested positive for the virus since the provincial pilot started at the school on Thursday.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the virus is spreading from the community into the schools, and not within the classrooms themselves.
"It wasn't a huge surprise because there is significant community spread in that area," Elliott said of the test results. "But it does tell us that we need to be careful to keep the children safe, that teachers stay safe and the staff are safe."
The school was the first tested under a new provincial plan to target classrooms in Toronto, Peel, York and Ottawa announced last week.
The expanded voluntary testing will be provided for four weeks and those who show symptoms or have been exposed to a COVID-19 case should continue to stay home and get tested at an assessment centre, the province said.
The province first announced the program this summer but it had not yet taken effect.
NDP deputy leader Sara Singh said the results from Thorncliffe Park are just the "tip of the iceberg" of what the province will find in hot spot region schools.
"This is why New Democrats have been calling on this government ... to cap our class sizes to get the outbreaks under control in our schools," she said.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said the results should motivate the government to take additional measures to keep schools safe, including cutting class size.
The tests show Ontario may not actually know what virus rates look like in its schools, he added.
"I think it's a scary number that we saw," he said. "And I think as this continues to get rolled out ... we are going to see numbers that will give parents a lot of anxiety."
Ontario began the testing at Thorncliffe Park on Thursday - with 433 tests completed last week - and work was expected to continue Monday.
Elementary schools in Toronto require staff and students to be screened daily for the virus, wear masks, practice physical distancing and practice proper hand hygiene.
Toronto Public Health said it is also now requiring siblings to stay home if there is one child in the household with symptoms of COVID-19.
Staff said the positivity rate within the school was approximately four per cent.
Associate medical officer of health Dr. Barbara Yaffe said that local data shows positivity rates in the community around the school are approximately 16 per cent.
"We're working very closely with Toronto Public Health on what measures need to be done to reduce the transmission and to reduce the infection rate in schools," she said. "It's concerning but it's not surprising."
The province said Monday it has begun testing in some schools in Peel Region and Ottawa and is expecting results back in the coming days.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the findings at Thorncliffe Park are a sign the program is doing what it's supposed to.
"I think it underscores that a plan is in place trying to work hard to mitigate any further spread," he said.
Lecce said the province will bolster its COVID-19 safety programming when all children return to school after the Christmas break. It will ensure students receive a refresher on pandemic safety measures after the pause in class, he said.
"I accept that we still have work to do in the context of countering COVID-19 in our community," he said.
The province reported 102 new COVID-19 cases related to schools on Monday, including at least 86 among students.
Those brought the number of schools with a reported case to 670 out of Ontario's 4,828 publicly funded schools.
Ontario reported 1,746 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, and eight new deaths due to the virus.
Elliott said 390 cases in Peel Region and 217 in York Region. Toronto reported 622 new cases, its highest ever single-day total.
In the province's long-term care homes, 710 residents currently have COVID-19 and two new deaths were reported Monday.
The province said 109 of its 626 long-term care homes are experiencing an outbreak.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said Ontario reported seven new deaths on Monday.