Only in the past two weeks has the Saskatchewan government started shipping rapid COVID-19 tests to schools. Alberta piloted a rapid testing program in two schools late last month. And in Ontario, some regions have sent take-home testing kits with students, while others direct families to pharmacies and testing centres.
More than a year into the pandemic, one thing is clear: Provincial governments do not have a consistent plan when it comes to COVID-19 testing of students and school staff.
“Certainly testing would have gone a long way to early detection and potentially prevent the need to move online,” said Patrick Maze, head of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation.
Several school divisions in his province, including Regina Public Schools, have temporarily switched to remote learning as concern grows around recent COVID-19 infections and the spread of variants. In Ontario, where some educators have called for a move back to remote learning to curb the spread of the virus, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said on Thursday that schools would remain open and that he would introduce new safety measures shortly.
There is worry in some quarters that COVID-19 testing of students and staff – one of the measures that has been promoted as a way to keep schools open during the pandemic – hasn’t been properly rolled out, if at all, by provincial governments. In Quebec, for example, there is no plan for systematic use of asymptomatic testing in schools, and public-health officials have been reluctant to deploy rapid tests because they are less accurate.
In Mr. Maze’s province, the government said in late March, seven months into the academic year, that it was shipping 100,000 rapid antigen tests to schools. Chelsey Balaski, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education, said that the government is identifying third-party providers to use these tests in schools and other settings.
Rapid tests can be done on the spot for screening purposes of asymptomatic people in contexts such as schools or work sites. The tests use a short nasal swab and take 15 minutes for results. They have not been used on students as yet, Mr. Maze said.
“If we had rapid testing being administered in schools in Saskatchewan a few months ago, back when they were first received from the federal government, it is very likely the variant outbreak in Regina could have been detected much sooner, and full-school shutdown … could all have been prevented,” Mr. Maze said.
Similarly, Alberta piloted rapid antigen testing in two of its Calgary schools only last month. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange told reporters in March that the pilot testing program in schools was used to screen students and staff who don’t have any symptoms. “We need to learn from this trial experience,” she said. Her office indicated that more information would be shared in the coming weeks.
Nisha Thampi, the medical director of infection prevention and control at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, in Ottawa, said that in order for schools to remain open, testing “needs to be ramped up” and it needs to be more accessible. “We have to do better in testing asymptomatic high-risk contacts,” Dr. Thampi said.
In Ontario, the government mandated in February that all school boards offer tests in 5 per cent of their schools every week – and to at least 2 per cent of their students. Of the province’s 72 boards, five have yet to launch their testing program. Some areas of the province, particularly Toronto, have offered home-test kits to families when there’s a positive case in the classroom. Elsewhere, families and teachers have been told to drive to testing centres or pharmacies.
Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lecce, did not directly respond to a question as to why the province hasn’t made the testing program more consistent. The ministry is exploring different testing approaches, including the use of take-home kits. “We will continue to promote and encourage all students, staff and families to take advantage of this program – which uses the least invasive testing options possible,” Ms. Clark said.
Marit Stiles, the NDP’s education critic, said that she is concerned that testing is not accessible and families are not being properly informed.
“The government had six months to roll this out and put a plan in place. Instead we’re getting this slap-dash approach,” Ms. Stiles said. “Why is it that some hospitals or some regions are able to do this in a more effective way, and [others aren’t able to]? The government hasn’t played a leadership role here.”
The Globe and Mail, April 3, 2021