The provincial government will no longer provide free rapid antigen COVID-19 tests to private schools for the asymptomatic surveillance of students, leaving parents who have been calling for the measure to be implemented at all schools confused and angry.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said Saturday evening private schools were going against public health guidance and abusing the system by planning to administer the tests to children. Several Toronto private schools developed rapid testing programs ahead of the fall academic term to regularly screen students and staff for COVID-19.
The rapid antigen tests, which are taxpayer-funded and distributed to select organizations through the provincial antigen screening program, are only meant to be used by employees, the spokesperson said.
Parents questioned why the government-funded measure would not be implemented for students as another layer of protection, amidst a fourth wave fuelled by the highly infectious Delta variant.
Anne Knight, parent of two children who attend schools within the French board Viamonde, called the government’s decision to “claw back” tests from private educational institutions shortsighted.
“It was fine and good for children in private schools to have access to rapid testing,” Knight said. “When it comes to actually managing the cost and logistical effort of providing the same treatment to public schoolchildren … all of a sudden it’s too much work and too much cost.”
Knight’s children are in junior kindergarten and kindergarten; both too young to be vaccinated.
“Our kids are worth it and we need to do what is necessary to keep them safe, to detect asymptomatic transmission early.”
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said Thursday “there’s no additional value” to implementing asymptomatic rapid antigen testing at schools, given generally low community infection rates. The tests would lead to more false positives than true positives; people who test positive need to undergo a confirmatory PCR test, followed by a quarantine period, he explained.
There “may be a slight benefit to asymptomatic rapid antigen testing at school settings,” especially in high risk communities, Moore said. He cited Windsor, which was recording around 100 cases per 100,000 people, as an example of where the province could consider doing rapid testing.
But, at this time, the “cost” and “burden” of testing doesn’t have a significant benefit to limiting the spread of the disease and “the cost of it is not an effective means of limiting spread,” he said.
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“We’ll use that tool if and when community rates are high, but that’s much higher than where we’re at right now,” Moore said.
Toronto parent Kate Dupuis said she was “taken aback” by the government’s decision to no longer provide the tests to private schools, adding more needs to be done to ensure children are safe.
“What we were asking for was the opposite. Leave it to the kids who have it, but add in the rest of the kids,” Dupuis said. “Now they’re removing protections from even the kids who were protected in the first place. It honestly is very confusing.”
Several private schools — including Branksome Hall — partnered with the University of Toronto’s Creative Destruction Lab’s Rapid Screening Consortium to administer the tests.
Janice Stein, who serves on the lab’s steering committee, told CP24 that private schools were able to access the testing kits because “their regulatory environment is simpler.”
“It suggests the reason private schools were chosen over public schools for this type of reach-out and testing program is because, bureaucratically, it can be a little bit simpler to work with private schools,” Dupuis said. Her children are in kindergarten and Grade 1 within the Toronto District School Board.
“Parents at this point are really concerned. We’re willing to try a number of different options to keep our kids safe … It really feels like the rug was pulled out from under us,” she added.
Natalie Black, parent of two children in the Toronto District School Board in grades 1 and 3, said the decision was “a step in the wrong direction.”
“The message is the government is not interested in preventing transmission in kids and the downstream impacts of that: kids getting sick, kids missing school, kids facing long-term health outcomes,” Black said. “To have these tools, and to be giving them to businesses and not be using them for children, I simply do not understand that decision at this point in the pandemic.”
The government should have expanded the testing to all students instead of rolling it back for some, she said.
“Parents are desperate to keep their kids safe,” Black said, adding some parent groups are organizing to collect and distribute rapid tests to the student population.
Maria Sarrouh is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: [email protected]
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