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'Disappointing, again': York Region parents call for equitable access to COVID-19 rapid testing

Province rolling out rapid antigen testing at schools, but health units to decide where kits go
Oct. 7, 2021

Newmarket parents are questioning the province’s announcement about COVID-19 rapid antigen tests in schools amidst uncertainty on how it will roll out in York Region.

The province said Oct. 5 it will begin providing rapid antigen screening at select schools and licensed child care settings, which will be voluntary for asymptotic staff and students. But the testing will not be rolled out across all schools, with exact locations decided by local public health units based on transmission risk.

Advocacy group York Communities for Public Education has pushed for weeks for the testing. Newmarket resident and co-chair Shameela Shakeel said it is a “good start,” but the province should do more.

“All Ontario families deserve equitable access to rapid antigen tests, which represent one layer of safety to help identify COVID cases early,” she said. “We now have to wait and see if our schools are on the province’s list with their new strategy for rapid testing in schools. It is disappointing, again."

The screening will only be available for unvaccinated individuals who are not high-risk contacts, including those under age 12 who cannot yet receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Those with a positive result will then have to get a lab-based PCR test from an assessment centre, and be isolated until the result is determined.

The province said it is not recommending routine rapid antigen screening for fully vaccinated people, given the effectiveness of vaccines and the risks of learning disruption due to false positives.

York Region has not yet announced where the kits may be made available locally. Director of corporate communications Patrick Casey said that is under discussion.

“York Region Public Health is currently reviewing local data and the new guidance in collaboration with our school board partners; more information will be made available,” he said.

The region is experiencing nine school outbreaks as of Oct. 5, including one in Newmarket at Dr. J.M. Denison Secondary School. The outbreaks involve 28 students and three staff in total.

Parents and teachers in York Region and across the province have pushed for rapid antigen screening in schools. York Communities for Public Education had arranged a supply from a Waterloo-based program, but the province cut off that source, which was only intended for businesses.

But Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, said having asymptomatic screening, alongside other measures, will help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Targeted asymptomatic screening has the potential to detect cases in schools earlier and reduce the risk of outbreaks and closures, particularly in communities across the province that have a high prevalence of active COVID-19 cases,” Moore said. “Expanding access to rapid antigen screening may be another way to help keep schools safer and students in the classroom.”

Still, Shakeel said the rollout should be more expansive. She noted other provinces such as Quebec and Nova Scotia are making rapid testing kits widely available for younger students, as opposed to based on health unit jurisdiction.

“We have had outbreaks already in York Region schools. Rapid test kits should be available for families who would like to use them to help keep their kids and school communities safe,” she said. “We should not have to keep pushing and fighting."