Some Toronto elementary school parents have built their own rapid testing program from scratch — finding a supplier in the Waterloo region, driving there and back to pick up the kits multiple times a month and spreading the news by word of mouth.
So far this school year, their efforts mean 280 students at Earl Beatty Junior and Senior Public School and some siblings, are participating in the twice-a-week testing regime, completing close to 1,000 tests to date, said founder Sam Kaufman. His eight-year-old son Asa is a student there and taking part.
“The idea of this kind of screening is to catch cases early,” Kaufman, a data scientist, told CBC News.
“You may not be able to prevent a classroom from going home, but hopefully you prevent many kids from getting sick and the outbreak getting out of control.”
The tests were donated by the Waterloo Region-based Stay Safe program, which helps businesses and communities scale up rapid testing.
Kaufman say he’s frustrated at the Ontario government’s refusal to spearhead rapid testing efforts in schools, especially as he sees outbreaks mount. The City of Toronto is reporting 11 schools are currently experiencing outbreaks and a Durham Region school has closed for at least two weeks with students going back to online learning.
“I don’t understand why we wouldn’t use every tool we have to try to keep COVID out of our schools,” he said.
TDSB doesn’t support rapid testing
In Toronto, case rates have also increased for four to 11 year olds in the last few weeks and are now the highest of all age groups for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, said the city’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa at a board of health meeting Monday.
The majority of cases are not linked to school transmission but rather to parents and caregivers at home, she said.
Neither Toronto Public Health, nor the province recommend surveillance testing like the program at Earl Beatty, and therefore it’s not supported by the Toronto District School Board, said spokesperson Ryan Bird.
Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kieran Moore told reporters Friday that large-scale antigen testing doesn’t significantly limit the spread of COVID-19 and can produce false positives that lead to people getting unnecessary PCR tests and burdening labs.
“It would be difficult for us to test two million children every day or twice a week or three times a week,” Moore said.
However, he said the province is considering using rapid tests in schools where the community rate is high, over 100 cases per 100,000 people.
The province will also require all school staff not fully vaccinated to regularly complete rapid tests and does supply them to businesses and other workplaces.
Some parents started an online petition calling for the province to provide rapid testing to all kids not yet eligible for vaccination that has reached 2,000 signatures.
Experts support rapid testing
The Earl Beatty school program’s rapid antigen tests are intended for students who don’t have any COVID-19 symptoms or known exposures, said Kaufman. That’s different than the take-home testing kits that three hospitals are supplying across city schools, which are only for kids showing symptoms or experienced a high-risk exposure.
The rapid tests, while less reliable, display results within 15 minutes at home, according to Stay Safe guidelines.
If a student tests positive, parents are advised to report the result to Michael Garron Hospital and get a lab-based test, Kaufman said.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist with Toronto’s University Health Network, is one of many experts who say rapid testing has a role to play in making indoor spaces like schools safer.
“They’re really there to answer the question: ‘Am I contagious with the virus right now?'” Bogoch said.
“Of course, they’re not perfect, but they’re pretty good at doing it and if they were distributed among families, I think we could do a lot of good with those tests.”
Kaufman said he realizes parents at Earl Beatty are in a privileged position, with the time and resources to run the program with help from Stay Safe, while other communities may need more help from their school boards, public health units or the province to get access to similar testing.
But the interest exists. Kaufman said every day he hears from parents across the province and country who want to start something similar.
“Nor every parent group who wants these tests can get them,” he said.
“People can’t drive from Ottawa to Waterloo to pick up a test, which is what we’re hearing. And even the fact that I have to drive from Toronto to pick up the tests is kind of crazy.”