The Alberta government announced on Saturday the in-school COVID-19 rapid testing program is expanding to 300 schools after a pilot program in March.
While an exact timeline was not provided, the province said the testing will begin as soon as possible at schools in Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge and Grande Prairie for as many as 220,000 students and staff.
“As we all know, the spread of COVID-19 in our communities is reflected in schools, and we are taking measures this week by taking more targeted public health measures that we announced last Tuesday, and we’re taking more actions in our schools,” Premier Jason Kenney said.
“Rapid testing is one more tool to limit the spread of the virus in schools during this third wave.”
Four-hundred-forty-thousand rapid test kits will be distributed at the selected schools, and Education Minister Adrianna LaGrange said rapid response teams will be sent to schools outside the selected communities if Alberta Health identifies a need.
The program will allow students and staff who do not have symptoms and have not identified as close contacts to get tested while at school, with results available typically within an hour. A positive test will be confirmed with a lab test at an Alberta Health Services assessment centre.
“We are working with school boards and testing teams to make this happen as soon as possible,” LaGrange said. “Testing will take place first in Edmonton and Calgary, followed soon after by Lethbridge and Grande Prairie.
“A variety of factors will go into the order of testing into the schools that are selected; this includes how prevalent COVID-19 cases are in the school and the surrounding community.”
The province said the rapid testing program will focus on students in grades 7-12.
A month ago, the province announced the rapid testing pilot program in two Calgary schools.
“We were able to learn from the experience of the pilot, such things as how long it takes to test a certain number of people. Things helped us determine the potential for the expanded program,” LaGrange said.
“We also took the time to consult with health officials on what age groups and communities to target so that the program can be as effective as possible.”
“To date, rapid testing at CBE schools has been well-received by parents, students and staff,” the Calgary Board of Education said in a statement. “We look forward to the expansion to additional schools and grades, to support us in maintaining ongoing in-person learning.”
Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling said he wants the province to provide additional support, whether it’s through more PPE or added cleaning measures. But most importantly, he wants all teachers and school staff to be vaccinated.
“We’ve seen rising cases in the community, we are seeing an increase within schools, we are not seeing the government take any action towards making the plans stronger to vaccinate teachers in those schools, so to see a rise in cases, and an inaction by government, is concerning,” Schilling said. “Ultimately, teachers want to be with their students at the school and working with them at that capacity.”
In a statement, Edmonton Catholic Schools board chair Sandra Palazzo said the rapid testing plan will add an additional layer of defence against the coronavirus for students and staff, but she would also like to see teachers and support staff vaccinated now.
“Allowing for teachers and school support staff to be considered front-line workers so that they can be vaccinated now would ensure maximum safety for our schools,” Palazzo said. “We will keep our school communities informed as we find out more about selected sites, procedures, and testing timelines for rapid testing.”
On Saturday, the premier said he is contemplating allowing those in certain professions to get vaccinated in Phase 3.
“We will take the advice of the scientific advisory committee, but once we get to that point, we will have so much supply that we may significantly slow down the vaccine program if we create several queues because it wouldn’t just be teachers; it would be all sorts of people who have to work outside the home.”
— More to come