Asymptomatic testing for COVID-19 in schools is ramping up across Ontario, following a directive from Education Minister Stephen Lecce earlier this month.
In this expansion of an earlier testing pilot effort in the fall, the province is calling for larger school boards to test at least five per cent of their elementary and secondary students weekly, with a goal of reaching about two per cent of the student population in the province. The campaign began with schools in areas such as Ottawa, Toronto, Peel and York Region over the past few weeks.
We asked experts to explain what's behind this push, what's been blocking families from testing and how the new variants factor into this initiative.
Why is this being introduced?
Dr. Janine McCready of Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto was among the infectious disease physicians who worked with public health and education officials to conduct full-scale COVID-19 testing in schools that had outbreaks last fall.
At one school in a hotspot area, the team discovered between four and five per cent of students without symptoms nonetheless tested positive for COVID-19, McCready said. That underlines the value of being proactive with asymptomatic testing, as another layer of protection against the coronavirus.
"We don't want to wait until there's a number of cases in the school," she said. "We really want to try and look for it and find it before it spreads within the classes. "
She said staff conducting in-person classes have done an "amazing" implementing several layers of safety measures in classrooms, "you'd like to prevent as much as possible."
WATCH | Inside Ontario's plan for up to 50,000 asymptomatic COVID-19 tests a week in schools:
Testing clinics at Ottawa-area schools have run for several weekends in areas where health officials have previously seen clusters of cases. The goal has been to identify people who have COVID-19 — including those who maybe resisted going for testing or didn't believe themselves at risk — and break the chain of transmission, said Dr. Nisha Thampi, medical director of infection prevention and control at CHEO, a pediatric health and research centre in Ottawa.
"What we're trying to drill down to is how can we make testing more accessible and more acceptable and easier to adopt as a way of being in the community."
Which schools are being selected?
Local health officials, school board representatives and public health units are teaming up to identify which schools will most benefit from asymptomatic testing clinics.
So far, this has meant schools in communities or areas with higher prevalence of COVID-19, McCready said.
Families are hearing of drop-in testing clinics in their neighbourhoods from a variety of places: emails from principals, messages from community groups and social media posts from school boards or local public health units.
Expanded & voluntary testing in #YorkRegion schools is well underway.
It’s an easy and safe experience — for York families, drop in to the sites in #Vaughan and #Aurora. pic.twitter.com/4BxSu0YqSL
Do you attend school in the Lawrence Heights area? As part of early #COVID19 identification in schools, @SickKidsNews is offering #COVID19 saliva testing for students & staff in the area. Visit 640 Lawrence Avenue West between 12:30 & 4:30 p.m. today to get tested.
However, in future, testing could potentially expand to other schools where more cases appear "and that need that extra level of protection."
Who is being tested?
Typically, the testing is available for students and staff of the particular school, but some jurisdictions have also opened it up to parents and other family members. In some regions, testing is open to students and families from neighbouring schools near the venue hosting the clinic. The testing is voluntary.