Quebec is using rapid testing to detect cases of COVID-19 in 72 schools across the province, as of Monday, Sept. 13.
Most are in areas with a high number of active cases, including the Montreal neighbourhoods of Parc-Extension and Montréal-Nord, as well as Chomedey in Laval.
About 20 per cent of schools across the province are reporting cases of COVID-19, which accounts for about 600 schools and more than 1,000 positive cases.
The province has said it would be testing symptomatic children but hasn’t said how the tests would be rolled out.
Heidi Yetman, the president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, says the provincial government should have made it clearer to school employees how it would work.
“Again, it seems like they’re using the employees on the ground to try to get these tests rolling instead of hiring people,” Yetman said.
“Again, the government puts out things and then just doesn’t follow through or expects staff on the ground to do that extra work.”
‘Like bringing in a small extinguisher’
In the spring, Montreal researchers released their findings after a pilot project looking at the effectiveness of rapid COVID-19 tests in two schools.
The researchers found the tests weren’t effective when used randomly as a preventive tool, but they could be useful in situations where outbreaks were already suspected.
Dr. Christoper Labos, a Montreal cardiologist with a degree in epidemiology, says the point of rapid testing is to avoid sending children home in the middle of the day when they develop symptoms.
“We just have to get over the novelty of the experience and realize the technical aspects [of administering tests] are not that hard as long as we give them the proper training,” he said.
“We’ll diagnose more cases, but hopefully if we can do it fast enough, it’s going to limit the ultimate size of outbreaks in schools and allow things to get back to normal a lot more quickly.”
Olivier Drouin, the founder of Covid Écoles, a crowdsourcing initiative tracking cases in schools and advocating for more preventive measures, believes the tests should be more widely deployed.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s like bringing a small extinguisher when an entire building is on fire,” Drouin said.
“I don’t think it’s [enough] to prevent what’s actually already happening.”
It’s also unclear what schools are supposed to do when pupils test positive.
“There are different scenarios that need to be considered,” Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious diseases expert at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, said. “This isn’t simply a pregnancy test.”
Vinh says the government needs to set clear guidelines about addressing student infections — those who test positive and those who test negative but were exposed to people with COVID-19.
“If we’re just [rapid testing in schools] as a sort of a way to appease the pressures on the government, that’s the wrong reason to do it, and it’s only going to be wasting our money.”
Quebec’s Health Ministry did not return a request for comm