Rainbow schools begin rapid COVID-19 testing this week

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SUDBURY – A Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) request to the provincial government to deploy rapid tests for asymptomatic students has been answered with tests in Rainbow schools to begin as early as this week. 

“The ministry (education) has announced that they are going to deploy rapid testing to essential workplaces and settings,” said Norm Blaseg, director of education for RDSB. “They (province) are targeting five percent of schools per week and this will be through mobile units under contract with the ministry of education (third party).” 

Mr. Blaseg explained prior to the February 17 announcement “we wouldn’t be directly involved, it would be implemented by the local health unit. But this falls in line with a pilot project the board would like to be part of. If it went ahead, the testing would be done by zones so all four school boards in our area would be included.” 

Based on the successful use of rapid tests in select settings across the province, the Ontario government is deploying test kits to more essential workplace and sectors in order to quickly identify and help stop the spread of COVID-19. Rapid tests are now being used in long-term care homes, retirement homes, congregate care settings, First Nations communities and many essential workplaces, a release explains.

“The use of rapid tests are real game changers as they provide results in a matter of minutes instead of hours or days,” said Premier Doug Ford in the release February 12. “It’s important to get them out the door as quickly as possible to provide an added layer of protection for our frontline workers and vulnerable citizens, especially those in rural and remote areas of the province.” 

To enhance protection against COVID-19 variants and support a safe and gradual return to the COVID-19 Response Framework, Ontario has deployed approximately two million rapid antigen tests and 175,000 rapid diagnostic tests to essential workplace and highly vulnerable settings like long-term care homes and retirement homes. At scale, the province will be deploying approximately one million tests per week across targeted sectors.

The RDSB, in a letter dated February 3, 2021 to Stephen Lecce, minister of education, informed the minister that at its regular meeting on January 26, 2021 “that Rainbow District School Board requests the immediate implementation of asymptomatic surveillance testing within Rainbow schools.” RDSB trustees originally approved the motion put forward by Linda Debassige and seconded by Margaret Stringer.

“When a second state of emergency was declared in Ontario, the province announced additional health and safety measures to keep students and staff safe. We were pleased that expanded targeted testing was among those measures and respectfully request that voluntary surveillance testing for COVID-19 be offered in Rainbow schools,” the letter continues. “We are sharing this request to you with our local health unit, Public Health Sudbury and Districts, whose guidance through the pandemic has been invaluable. Surveillance testing is especially necessary in Rainbow schools because of the uniqueness of the region in which our schools are located in Sudbury, Espanola and Manitoulin Island.”

For Manitoulin, the letter notes, “our concern extends beyond the students and staff in the school to the vulnerability of the population at large. Our First Nations trustee, Linda Debassige, who is also chief of M’Chigeeng First Nation, recognized the risks and brought forward the motion requesting that asymptomatic surveillance testing be implemented in Rainbow schools.”

“The emergence of variants with significantly greater transmission rates adds to the urgency. It is essential that we do all that we can to prevent the spread. Identifying undetected COVID-19 infections in schools will not only provide an additional layer of protection, it will serve to reduce anxiety among students, parents/guardians and staff, increasing public confidence in schools and the communities that we serve,” the letter continues. It adds, “given that it will take several months for the vaccine to reach the broader population, we sincerely request asymptomatic testing be implemented without further delay. Thank you for working together to keep everyone safe.” 

As announced on February 1, Ontario is further expanding asymptomatic and symptomatic testing to schools that are resuming in-person learning. To support school reopening, over 4,000 ID NOW rapid diagnostic tests have been distributed to assessment centres for the rapid testing of symptomatic children in areas where turnaround times for results are above target.

RDSB reports that about 260 of its students will receive the testing weekly (two schools per week).