Parents at Ontario school create their own COVID-19 testing program
TORONTO -- A group of parents at an Toronto public school are running their own rapid COVID-19 surveillance testing program for their kids, sometimes assembling test kits from their kitchen tables in a bid to keep all kids in class as long as possible this fall.
Alarmed by the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant, along with the lack of free asymptomatic testing available to most kids in Toronto this fall, a group of parents at Earl Beatty Junior and Senior Public School in Toronto set up their own rapid antigen screening system.
“We just started in time for the launch of school on Thursday,” organizer Sam Kaufman told CP24. “And we hope we can keep going as long as school is running.”
The Earl Beatty Community Access Testing program will see any willing asymptomatic child at Kaufman’s local school take a rapid antigen COVID-19 test twice per week, similar to what is required of unvaccinated education workers in the province.
Since the year started, more than 200 children at the school have agreed to participate, with more signing on every day.
Parents report any presumptive positive cases on a web portal, managed and secured by nearby Michael Garron Hospital, which also will offer confirmatory testing with a full PCR test.
“This is surveillance testing, not diagnostic testing – you catch infections early while they’re still asymptomatic, and keep kids in class,” Kaufman said.
Ontario’s education minister and chief medical officer of health have all but ruled out such a surveillance program for public school pupils this year, saying things would need to get worse before such a scheme would be helpful.
That did not stop several private schools from snapping up public purchased rapid tests to engage in their own surveillance testing programs, which prompted the Ford government to stop supplying testing kits to private schools for use on students.
Kaufman said he has been contacted by a number of schools interested in replicating the Earl Beatty, and he is planning a Zoom videoconference for them soon.
He said teaching volunteers and parents on how to handle the kits was not difficult.
“There’s this impression that they’re too hard to use at home, when really they’re not.”
For Earl Beatty’s plan to get off the ground, Kaufman turned to the Stay Safe initiative, run out of Communitech in Kitchener, Ont.
Stay Safe was initially set up to deliver rapid tests from the federal stockpile to businesses with 150 employees or fewer, as a means of keeping them operational, especially in the time before widespread vaccine coverage.
But an official with Stay Safe told CP24 they also have an “ambassador” program, where anyone interested in demonstrating the value of COVID-19 rapid testing can pick up as many kits as they want.
Kaufman says he signed up as an ambassador with Stay Safe after discovering the program “by chance,” several weeks ago, sometimes driving to Kitchener to pick up the kits himself.
A Stay Safe official said their small team of three full-time workers and several volunteers have been working flat out for months to sign people up and distribute rapid tests.
They said that at least 10 schools, possibly more, have asked to be part of the program.
There are more than 4,800 publicly-funded schools in Ontario.
They said supply would not be the main barrier to delivering more tests to a greater number of schools, but administrating the deliveries would be a challenge.
The province so far has not outright said that supply or cost is the reason they have not implemented free asymptomatic surveillance testing for all children, but the province’s stockpile would quickly deplete if turned to the 1.7-1.8 million students attending in-person class this fall.
As of Sept. 3, there were 13.6 million federally-procured rapid COVID-19 tests delivered, but still unused in the province of Ontario.
At two tests per week, Ontario’s remaining supply would not even sustain all schools for a month.
Kaufman said repeatedly said he didn’t want to blame the province or other layers of government for the lack of surveillance testing in schools this year, but said what his school group is doing couldn’t be replicated everywhere without some form of public help.
“For all communities having support of governments or public health would be very helpful,” he said.
“We know that we have a certain amount of privilege to do this – there are probably communities where this would have a greater impact but they may not have the capability to do this.”
If supply is an issue, Kaufman said the province could alter its rapid testing program to exclude fully-vaccinated working people, as they are at low risk of infection, and an even lower risk of severe outcomes due to COVID-19.
For instance, University of Toronto is now offering two or more rapid antigen COVID-19 testing kits per week to anyone who wants them, not just the unvaccinated or partially vaccinated staff members and students who must take them to gain entry to campus.
“Kids are the largest group of unvaccinated people who are easily accessible,” Kaufman said.
He said he’s been writing letters to government officials from all levels for a year, arguing the merits of widespread rapid testing, such as what is done with public school pupils in Britain and other jurisdictions.
“There’s been a failure to adopt these in a widespread way. I don’t know why, I don’t know who to blame. They’ve become very affordable.”