The Ontario government has led publicly funded COVID-19 rapid testing initiatives to stop distributing tests to schools and parents, following a series of self-organized efforts by families and advocates to screen asymptomatic students.
Agencies across the province, including local chambers of commerce and business boards, partnered with the provincial antigen detection program to distribute rapid tests at workplaces. But with the return to in-person learning, some concerned parents and advocates have also used the resource to access testing, without a provincial plan for asymptomatic surveillance in schools.
In a statement, a spokesman for the Health Ministry said it expected partner agencies “to adhere to the parameters of the program as with any government program.”
“This is a program designed with the specific purpose of protecting workers while businesses safely reopen and remain open.”
When school resumed this fall, and with children under the age of 12 still ineligible for vaccination, some parents turned to StaySafe, an antigen detection program based in the Waterloo region, to get rapid tests for schools.
Samantha Clark, spokeswoman for partner organization Communitech, said the province now “reached out and worked with us to ensure that the StaySafe programs offered were in line with the mandate given, which was to put the kits in the hands of the companies.”
“New orders placed after 2:30 pm today will be reviewed to ensure they conform to StaySafe’s mandate in the workplace,” Clark said. “StaySafe Ambassadors will continue to have access to rapid testing as long as the testing is used for the purpose of evangelizing the importance of rapid testing in the workplace.”
An email sent to StaySafe participants said it was necessary to “clarify” that the program was not configured “for use with community groups and parent groups.”
At Queen’s Park on Wednesday, Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer, said the province was looking for rapid tests in schools, but suggested that parents using small business testing initiatives are breaking the rules.
“I think the pass program was intended for Ontario businesses. Its application in the school system was not following the rules used by that program, ”said Moore.
“I want to assure Ontarions that we are reviewing asymptomatic tests and their possible application in Ontario schools, especially in high-risk settings where there have been previous outbreaks or where there is a high risk of community spread,” he said.
“We are reviewing the best means to implement an asymptomatic testing strategy for our schools … but it will be based on risk.”
Moore has previously said that asymptomatic rapid antigen testing is currently not worth it, as long as infection rates in the community remain low; the tests would result in more false positives than true positives, requiring confirmatory PCR testing, followed by a quarantine period. In a recent evidence summary, Public Health Ontario also said that the “incremental benefit of repeating antigen testing in addition to the current comprehensive health and safety measures in schools remains uncertain.”
But as the Star previously reported, some experts have called it a reasonable and relatively low-cost tool to help keep schools open. On Wednesday, the Nova Scotia provincial government announced a rapid test pilot program for elementary school-age children.
A recent petition launched by parents at RH McGregor and Earl Beatty public schools in Toronto calls on the Ontario government to do the same.
“Business and the economy have been continually prioritized during this pandemic, while children have been deprived of their right to a proper education, with constant school closings and interruptions in learning,” the petition says.
The Education Ministry has said it has a “cautious reopening plan with improved cleanliness, strict controls, the implementation of take-home tests and significant ventilation improvements in all Ontario schools.”
It has also launched a pilot program to provide “specific high schools located in 13 public health units” with a take-home test kit when they have been “identified by their local public health unit as a high-risk contact” in outbreak scenarios.
Several private schools previously partnered with the University of Toronto’s Creative Destruction Laboratory Rapid Detection Consortium for rapid testing. The province later withdrew support, saying the program was not intended for asymptomatic surveillance of students.
The Toronto District School Board also recently met with CDL, spokesman Ryan Bird said, to discuss rapid tests for staff.
“During the meeting we were told that recently, the CDL was informed that they could not provide the program to schools,” Bird said. “The antigen tests provided by CDL are not provided to school boards, but only to companies.”
The province’s rapid antigen detection program has delivered 24 million tests to “more than 24,000 organizations and workplaces across the province” to date, according to the Health Ministry.
Western and central Ontario have seen the highest acceptance, according to a breakdown provided to the Star, with more than half of the tests distributed to those regions.
2.4 million tests have been distributed in Toronto, the lowest number except in northern Ontario.
When asked how many of those tests have been used, a spokesperson said it was the “expectation of the province that rapid tests will be used once they have been implemented.”
NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the province’s decision to block access to rapid tests in schools is a “devastating blow to parents.”
“Parents across the province have stepped forward to protect their children because Doug Ford did not act.”
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