After New Year’s Eve, Ontario public school students will be one of the few groups still eligible for PCR COVID-19 testing, according to new guidance released by the province on Thursday.

The new rules are coupled with a pledge to distribute N95 respirator masks to all school staff, ending some indoor high-risk physical activity and delivering another 3,000 high efficiency particulate air filters (HEPA) to the province’s 4,844 public schools.

The school year will be postponed two days, to begin on or about Jan. 5, in order to get schools ready for the changes.

Symptomatic adults will no longer be able to obtain free PCR testing in the province of Ontario, unless they are a member of a select few identifiable groups.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said the new masking and filtration equipment, combined with the 11 million rapid antigen tests given to students earlier this month will be enough to ensure safety when school resumes next week.

“We have pre-emptively distributed those 11 million tests. So children should will be receiving further instruction on how to use those tests prior to the reopening of school,” he said. “We have that safety buffer to ensure children don't return to school who test positive and they don't need confirmation once they have a positive (rapid antigen test).”

The new guidelines also call for “rigorous" screening of symptoms among students, without elaborating on what may change.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore says the new screening will include additional symptoms identified as being consistent with Omicron.

He said high-risk activities being postponed include all those believed to generate the most aerosols indoors.

“So the music classes where there's potential for a further aerosolization, the high-risk sports which with high contacts will be paused as well. And cohorting of students will be minimized to best protect students as well,” he said.

Children under 12 who test positive for COVID-19 will now be allowed to return to school after five days, after symptoms have improved for at least 24 hours.

The new plan will not involve universal mass asymptomatic screening for COVID-19 using rapid antigen tests on students, once the 11 million handed out earlier this month are exhausted.

Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said earlier this month that most of the province had reached the threshold of community spread to make universal rapid antigen screening worthwhile.

“I do think our education sector has been more aggressive than most across Ontario, if not North America, and ensuring that our schools remain safe,” Moore said. “I'm proud of the work they're doing.”

For its part, the Ontario Liberal Party said the back-to-school plan was threadbare and should involve rapid antigen screening, a vaccine mandate for all provincial education workers, booster priority for education workers and a vaccine mandate for students.

“Doug Ford’s last minute, two-day delay to re-open schools won’t do anything to keep our kids safe,” Del Duca said. “Ontario Liberals called for HEPA filters and high quality masks to be urgently deployed in classrooms nearly two months ago but Doug Ford refused to do it when it mattered most. It feels like the Ford Government went on holiday while Omicron surged.”

The NDP said earlier Thursday the plan should include extending paid sick leave from three to 14 days, deploying vaccine clinics in schools with parental consent, lowering class sizes and continuing improvements on air filtration and ventilation in classrooms.