Rainbow board looks for provincial support for in-school COVID-19 surveillance testing

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SUDBURY – The Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) is hopeful of getting support from the province and Public Health Sudbury and Districts (PHSD) for having asymptomatic COVID-19 surveillance testing in all its schools and/or a pilot project being looked at for Manitoulin Island. 

“I can tell you that on Friday I contacted the Ministry of Education about our interest in surveillance testing in schools,” said Norm Blaseg, director of education for the RDSB, last week. He pointed out the province has already undertaken this in schools in southern Ontario and is looking to expand this by 15-20 schools per week. “I asked for this surveillance testing to be done as soon as possible; it is the only way to make sure everyone is safe.”

Mr. Blaseg noted that the proposed surveillance testing, which would be on a voluntary basis, would take in all students and staff at its elementary and secondary schools, parents and families.

“I have requested to the ministry (of education) that the schools on the Island should be the first for this testing,” said Mr. Blaseg. “We would like this to take place for Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) as it takes in non-First Nation and First Nation students from all over the Island, Little Current Public School—in fact, all our schools have First Nation (and non-First Nation presence.”

Mr. Blaseg said the initial response from the province on the proposal, “has been favorable, they are at least willing to take a look at all of this. And I sent a letter to Dr. Penny Sutcliffe (medical officer of health for PHSD) asking for the same thing, but I haven’t heard back from her on this.” He noted he would be following up with the assistant deputy minister of health Stacy Fuller (Ontario) and Dr. Sutcliffe. And we have been working with Linda Debassige (ogimaa of M’Chigeeng First Nation, who is also an RDSB trustee), who has been very supportive of the proposal.”
“It is a huge concern for the First Nation community that if the government wants to have students in class for education, that for instance in M’Chigeeng the community has about 150 elders and if there was an outbreak of COVID-19 in the community and things went bad, it could mean the community could lose their best source for keeping their language, culture and customs,” said Mr. Blaseg. 

Doreen Dewar, chair of the RDSB told the Recorder on Tuesday, “yes, we (RDSB) would love to see this surveillance testing initiated in all our schools. We are very supportive of this proposal. And if it is initiated it could start on Manitoulin Island because the area requires special attention. And the local First Nations have requested this take place. We would like to have this in all schools in Ontario.”

“We are very pleased to support something like that,” said Ms. Dewar.  

RDSB Manitoulin Trustee Margaret Stringer said, “I’m so impressed with our staff and students, who have been doing an outstanding job in keeping everyone safe. However, I know that our communities of parents, students and staff are feeling an increased level of anxiety these past weeks, as COVID numbers around the province and locally have been increasing. At the same time, our students in the north have returned to school, while the province is in a lockdown.” 

“I believe that asymptomatic surveillance testing will go a long way to lower anxiety and instill a level of confidence in our communities,” said Ms. Stringer. “This is a layer of protection we need to add.”

Ms. Stringer pointed out, “Premier (Doug) Ford himself noted that the testing they were doing on students was showing one in five were asymptomatic in southern Ontario. While we don’t have the same level of incidence here, we know that any increase could have grave consequences for our communities.”

“I whole-heartedly support a co-ordinated testing strategy in our schools,” continued Trustee Stringer. “The details of that testing would, of course, be determined by Public Health Sudbury and Districts. I am encouraged to note today (Tuesday) that the PHSD website states that expanded targeted testing will take place in area schools.” 

On January 8, Stephen Lecce, Ontario’s education minister, said the provincial government plans to roll out asymptomatic COVID-19 testing at schools across the province, expanding on a pilot project targeting schools in areas with the highest rates of COVID-19 infection.

Minister Lecce made the comments at a news conference at Queen’s Park, one day after noting all schools in southern Ontario would remain closed until January 25.

“We see wisdom in expanding it and our province will,” Mr. Lecce said of asymptomatic testing in schools. In late November, the province adjusted its COVID-19 testing guidance for school staff and students in Toronto, York Region, Peel Region and Ottawa to allow voluntary asymptomatic testing.