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Asymptomatic testing could play role in reopening of Hamilton schools

A health worker prepares vials to collect swab samples for a COVID-19 RT-PCR test. EPA/RAJAT GUPTA

Hamilton’s school board and public health say asymptomatic testing could play a role when Ontario gives the green light for in-person learning amid the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce hinted on social media that the province will likely announce a timeline for the reopening of a number of Ontario schools that still do not have in-person classes on Wednesday.

Read more: Hamilton’s COVID-19 vaccination clinics begin administering second doses

Leece has said previously any return will be dependent on the advice of the chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams.

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) chair Dawn Danko says they’ve been awaiting specifics on a plan since January and that their success for a return to classrooms is contingent on the local public health unit supporting specific actions.

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“So we have the opportunity for asymptomatic testing,” Danko told Global News.

“We’ve been asking for that for months now and would be pleased to have that capability, but ultimately, our local public health will decide when and where that would be appropriate.”

Ontario has earmarked $64.5 million for health and safety costs in the latest school reopening initiatives, with a portion for board-funded and transportation-related personal protective equipment (PPE) costs. The HWDSB will receive close to $2.7 million of the funding while the Catholic school board will see about $1.5 million.

The province is also providing public health with asymptomatic testing for schools with high case counts and those in outbreaks. The testing would be voluntary and require parental consent for those under 18.

On Monday, medical officer of health Dr. Elizabeth Richardson said the province has made polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing – exams using swabs inserted into a person’s nose or throat – available to the public health for potential use.

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“The province has made available some 25,000 PCR tests, as well as rapid antigen tests for use, and so we’re talking with the school boards and others about whether that’s something that we would see could be useful here locally,” Richardson said.

She went on to say testing would take a lot of resources and that the city has reached out to the province to find ways to do it without utilizing assets from either public health or the school boards.

“It’s also not any sort of replacement for when people are actually sick,” said Richardson.

Read more: Coronavirus — Hamilton’s medical officer says 55 new COVID-19 cases on Monday ‘still quite high’

“We need to make sure that they go and get diagnostic testing done through the appropriate assessment centres to make sure that they get the best test in terms of finding that diagnosis out.”

Richardson said she was a proponent of schools re-opening, saying “kids do best when they’re back in school” and that an in-person restart will likely follow a “last to close, first to reopen” principle.

Danko says that in her observations during the recent closures there are signs of students missing their social interactions with friends despite some thriving in an online learning environment.

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“We do hear some positive stories where at their lunch break they’ll actually online, connect with one another and play a game so that they have something that’s more like that social experience that they would have at school,” Danko said.

“But ultimately, we do know that children are not getting the same level of exercise. They’re not getting to and from school. They’re not outside at recess.”

Richardson said student and staff interactions will likely involve PPE with masking potentially for students all the way down to Grade 1, even outdoors.

Read more: Canada inks deal to produce Novavax COVID-19 vaccine

Increased screening for secondary students is another possibility over concerns of congregating before and after school.

“So these are all things that we’ve been talking about at the table with our schools in terms of how they move forward, what, practically speaking, could be ways that that those sorts of things go get put into place,” Richardson said.

 

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