Corp Comm Connects

York Region parents, teachers push for COVID-19 rapid testing in schools
Oct. 4, 2021

York Communities for Public Education co-chair Shameela Shakeel said parents are looking for peace of mind with rapid antigen testing kits for COVID-19.

The local advocacy group, alongside teachers union representatives, has worked to procure kits in the absence of a regional program.

Shakeel said she procured some kits for her own family before her children’s schools -- Newmarket High School and Stonehaven Elementary School -- reported presumed cases this week.

But their source -- a program in Kitchener that was cut off by the provincial government this week -- is now only supplying businesses with rapid-testing kits. Several parents groups across the province had been placing orders for kits meant for businesses.

“I’m angry. Beyond angry,” Shakeel said. “It’s so short-sighted. You have families who would like to use them for peace of mind and who would like to use them to help keep their kids safe, and we’re being shut down.”

York Region parents and teachers are pushing to make rapid-testing kits freely accessible in schools. The kits have been distributed to businesses for several months through a federal-provincial partnership, but were not included in the provincial measures for school safety this fall.

Currently, students have to be screened for COVID-19 symptoms at home every day, with instructions to get tested at an assessment centre or isolate if they show any symptoms.

Shakeel said the idea is not for them to be used for everyone at school, but for asymptomatic students and staff who want them. She said it was something parents were looking for when they got letters about COVID-19 cases at Stonehaven and Newmarket High School this week, though neither is in outbreak status.

“There’s always a little bit of a panic,” Shakeel said. “You want to see that negative test result, and if there is a positive on the rapid-test, then you can go for an actual PCR test (at an assessment centre)."

Public Health Ontario weighed in on the subject Sept. 14 and said asymptomatic testing has to be regular to be a benefit. It said there are “significant logistical, feasibility and operational considerations” with asymptomatic screening programs, and the incremental benefit of adding them to other measures “is uncertain.”

“Few jurisdictions have reported home-based antigen screening programs that have been successfully implemented and sustained beyond a brief period of high community transmission,” Public Health Ontario said.

But the Public Health Ontario brief does show jurisdictions where regular surveillance testing had some success. A widespread rapid-testing program implemented in Utah to keep kids in class reportedly saved an estimated 109,752 in-person instruction student-days.

York Region director of corporate communications Patrick Casey said providing rapid-testing kits to schools is an option public health is still exploring.

“This remains a work in progress, and a final decision has yet to be made,” Casey said. “The province continues to use rapid testing for businesses in Ontario and remains committed to reviewing the best means for implementing asymptomatic testing strategy.”

York Region has seven active school outbreaks as of Sept. 29 and 26 active student cases. Newmarket has one school outbreak at Meadowbrook Public School involving two students, with another four schools under surveillance due to confirmed cases not transmitted at the schools.

Shakeel said students mingling at lunchtime is an issue with current protocols. The hybrid teaching model used by York’s two school boards, which features educators teaching online and in-person at the same time, also remains a concern for advocates.

As for rapid testing, Shakeel said her group will continue to pursue the issue with the government and public health unit.

“I’m still optimistic they are going to change their mind,” she said. “There’s no reason why they can’t allow families to access them.”