NDP press for rapid testing in schools, minister responds

The Official Opposition New Democratic Party wants to see rapid-testing for COVID-19 implemented in schools, pointing out that it hasn’t happened yet.

Education critic Carla Beck said on March 18 via Zoom press conference from Regina, “Last month, back in February, Premier Moe did admit fault in not having those tests deployed more rapidly, more quickly, and had indicated that those rapid tests would be available, including to schools. Here we are, a month later, and we have a very concerning outbreak of the variant in Regina, that has spread to other communities, and we’re still waiting.

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“There's an urgency to this call today, an urgency that we're hearing right across the province, and we really would like to see that support, and that testing get up to schools as soon as possible so that we can avoid people getting sick with this variant and we can also avoid further lockdowns. 

“This is not a wait and see moment. This is not a time for hesitant language. It's a time to show some leadership on the part of the government and get those tests out the door and get that support to the school divisions,” Beck said.

She was joined by Margi Corbett from Saskatoon, a retired teacher in Saskatoon who remains in contact with lots of educators around the province, said Beck.

Corbett said she represents Safe Schools Saskatchewan, a group of concerned educators and their families. She said that the numbers of COVID cases reported by the Saskatchewan Health Authority do not line up with numbers reported by school divisions, and it has been that way for some time.

“They're begging for in-school rapid testing that could have a huge effect on our understanding of what is really happening in the building,” Corbett said, pointing out there are still issues with ventilation, such as windows that won’t open in some locations.

“They’re asking for the most helpful thing which would be to be able to have nurse-administered rapid testing in schools, not teacher-administered. Teachers are already way over overstretched.”

Asked where they would get the nursing staff from, as that profession has been heavily burdened during the pandemic, Corbett said, said, “That’s a huge problem, and that is a problem for government to address.”

And if that staff isn’t available, Corbett said, “The other option is to close schools.”

Beck said, “My understanding is that there is training available to help people be able to administer these tests.”

Asked about the fact schools not having turned out as the vector of COVID-19 transmission that was feared earlier on in the pandemic, Beck responded, “Those in our schools: teachers, administrators, staff in our schools, really have gone above and beyond to ensure that transmission rates have been as low as they are. And remember how in August, how hard we had to fight; how hard they had to fight, in order to get those supports in place. They have done an amazing job and I think they should be commended. And you’re right, transmission rates have been relatively low in schools. I think it would be a big mistake to assume that this new variant is going to behave just the way that the virus was behaving last year.”

Corbett said, “It's the known transmission rate that is the issue. So many young people are asymptomatic. And I'm not trying to scare people with a boogeyman. I'm just saying they are asymptomatic, we need to know how many have the virus, and especially the variant virus, before we know exactly what we can do. To have a big mystery is extremely frustrating and worrisome for educators.”

Health minister responds

Asked about this during the March 18 COVID briefing at the Legislature, Minister of Health Paul Merriman said, “I have to check into that, to see if there are actually any tests that are out there, but they are available. We're working with our school partners to be able to make sure that they want those tests in their facilities. It's kind of division by division is what we're looking at. So again, we're going to continue to work with them, to be able to find out if they want them. Some of the school divisions have expressed interest in this, but they have to have somebody there to be able to administer the test. It has to be done in a proper way, otherwise we could get a false negative or false positive on that.”

Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said, “Right now, even though the variants of concern are quite a significant issue in Regina, and occasionally they showed up in other schools like in Yorkton, Saskatoon, at the moment the current processes are sufficient, and schools are just reflecting transmission in the community. So, very low transmission overall in Saskatchewan; concerning transmission in Regina. But of course, further access to point of care testing over time will be an additional benefit, and additional layer of assurance. Not just for schools, but workplaces and other sites that we want to use that as a quick way to screen a large number of people.”

He said the processes we’ve had since September are working well.

Merriman said an issue is if local boards want that testing, and if they have somebody to be able to provide it. “We can look at getting employees from (Saskatchewan Health Authority), but that also pulls from our system, within there.

“As far I understand, there's a tender out, right now, to be able to contract that within the school division, but we certainly are working with them to be able to manage them through that process. If they do want the test, and they have the provider set up and all of that, we would be more than happy to provide them with those testing units. But there has to be a process in place. As I mentioned before, we don't want tests coming back that are false negative or false positive because that's not benefiting anybody.”