In an attempt to obtain rapid exams in the schools of the York region, Muna Kadri encountered many dead ends. Everywhere I looked, there seemed to be few options for asymptomatic students other than paying $ 40 each at Shoppers Drug Mart.
Now Kadri, president of Ontario Federation of Secondary School Teachers District 16, says she is ready, if needed, to rent a U-Haul and drive 130 kilometers for quick tests through a free program in the region. of Waterloo. Although grateful for the appeal, she says the situation can only be described as “mind-blowing.”
“How absurd is it that these are the extremes we have to go through?”
Kadri’s work is part of a hodgepodge of efforts forming in Ontario to improve access to rapid antigen detection for asymptomatic students, a move that some experts have called a safe and sensible addition to the mitigation toolkit. of COVID.
But even when self-organizing efforts are successful, those fighting for rapid tests say their plans do not replace a sustainable and equitable strategy across the province.
“We are very concerned about the ongoing disparities in COVID-related health efforts,” said Nadine Blum, who is part of a group of parents from the eastern tip of Toronto mobilizing for rapid testing at RH McGregor Elementary School.
Recognizing that not all communities will have the time and resources to do the same, the group has launched a petition, calling on the Ontario government to intervene.
“We believe that these tests should be available to all unvaccinated children,” Blum said. “And it shouldn’t be up to us parents to make this happen.”
On Tuesday, Ontario Medical Director of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said that asymptomatic rapid antigen testing currently does not justify the burden, 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, Moore said. He said things could change if infections increase.
Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said the province has a “cautious reopening plan with improved cleanliness, strict controls, the implementation of take-home tests and significant ventilation improvements in all schools in Ontario “.
“We will continue to follow the expert advice of the Medical Director of Health, with the singular goal of minimizing disruptions and maximizing safety and learning in Ontario schools.”
In addition to testing requirements for staff not yet vaccinated, the Ministry of Education has also launched a rapid testing pilot program for asymptomatic students: 18 York Region District School Board high schools are among the selected to participate.
But the province also recently withdrew support for private schools that developed rapid testing programs, saying they were not eligible for free COVID-19 testing for asymptomatic surveillance through the province-wide rapid antigen detection program.
Far from restricting asymptomatic screening, Kadri wants to see more.
“I’m not looking to take evidence from anyone,” he said. “I’m looking to make it equitable and expand access.”
“Schools are the only places left where we really want unvaccinated people to gather,” said Dr. Irfan Dhalla, an internal medicine physician at St. Michael Hospital and vice president of Unity Health Toronto.
“So it makes sense to do everything possible to reduce transmission there, not just for the children, but also for their families and the wider community.”
Ideally, rapid tests would be administered to “all unvaccinated children every few days, in all schools in Ontario,” said Dhalla, who is also co-chair of the federal government’s expert advisory panel on COVID-19 testing and detection.
As the pandemic approaches its two-year mark, it is now known that “the performance characteristics of rapid antigen tests are very good, especially when used frequently,” he added.
If testing is not possible in all schools, Dhalla is “very much of the opinion that we should focus public resources on schools that are in communities where the incidence of disease is highest.”
Anna-Kay Brown, co-chair of the Jane Finch Educational Action Group and president of her local parent council, said she has been told that saliva test kits are available upon request at her children’s school. But he worries about the broader inequalities that have put his community at risk and who will bear the burden of fixing them.
“Most initiatives … always fall on community and grassroots organizations and residents,” he said.
“It’s great that there are schools in the city that can be at the forefront,” added Sabrina Butterfly GoPaul, resident member of Jane Finch Action Against Poverty. “But I think that speaks to inequalities when you have wealthy areas and parents who may not be as pressured as our parents who work precarious hours.”
While about 72 percent of high school students in Ontario are now fully immunized, elementary school children are not yet eligible for the jab. Data from the nonprofit health research group ICES shows that vulnerable groups such as refugees and those newly registered with OHIP still lag behind the provincial immunization rate, even in the 12-15 age group. years in high-risk neighborhoods.
Kadri’s concerns about asymptomatic screening stemmed in part from the breaks unmasked: In her region, she says lunches are not always staggered and she believes the testing network needs to be broader to catch students who may have been exposed to COVID without knowing it.
“All I ask is access to asymptomatic tests for those who want them,” he said. “When a school has a case, (why not) make it available to anyone in the building?”
Looking for answers, she reached out to the Waterloo region’s StaySafe program, which launched this spring with the support of all three levels of government and is designed to help small businesses and nonprofits realize rapid antigen detection.
For the most part, that means providing individual “ambassadors” with a two-week supply (about 100 tests) at a time. To date, StaySafe has distributed more than a million free quick tests throughout southern Ontario, in cities ranging from London to Peterborough, said Samantha Clark, spokeswoman for partner organization Communitech.
Some applicants are using tests at their children’s schools, Clark said. But while the program “has been told that access to supply is not a problem,” she notes that the team is small and does not “have the capacity to help establish rapid antigen detection programs in all schools specifically.”
Susitha Wanigaratne, who helped mobilize rapid testing for RH McGregor Elementary School in Toronto, says asymptomatic screening is an “important, low-cost tool to help prevent outbreaks and keep our schools open.” But he said it is “puzzling and upsetting” that the antigen detection program that exists throughout the province is currently targeting businesses.
That provincial program has distributed 24 million tests to “more than 24,000 organizations and workplaces across the province” to date, said a spokesman for the Ministry of Health. The ministry said it is also “building on the success” of the Waterloo region’s Stay Safe pilot program by partnering with chambers of commerce to provide rapid testing to small and medium-sized businesses.
For Wanigaratne, students must be a priority.
“The last few years have been a gong show, education wise, and many of our children are suffering from learning, social and emotional disabilities.”
Rapid tests are not a silver bullet, and Kadri wants to see other precautions too; She says she is concerned, for example, that some teachers in her region have been told that they could face progressive discipline if they wear masks of a higher grade than those issued by the school board. (A spokesperson for the York region said teachers are required to wear medical grade masks according to Ministry of Education guidelines, but did not answer questions about a possible discipline.)
In the Jane-Finch community, Brown wants to see smaller class sizes and steps to address the historic resource shortfall.
“We have always experienced systemic barriers and problems, and the pandemic exacerbated them.”
Unequal access to rapid tests, GoPaul said, is just one symptom of that greater challenge.
“Our schools have been hugely affected in the first, second, third and fourth waves,” he said. “They are a microcosm of the world around them.”
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