When Betty Zou and a group of concerned parents in East Toronto hatched a plan to create a COVID-19 rapid testing program at their children’s school, they never imagined they would soon be providing tutorials and sharing “how to” documents with families in communities across Canada.
“Since we’ve launched, we’ve had a ton of email inquiries from schools in the area and even in other districts, like Peel, Etobicoke, Burlington, as far away as Saskatoon and Surrey, B.C. from other parents who are just really interested in replicating our model at their schools,” she said.
Zou and the team at “Earl Beatty Community Asymptomatic Testing” receive the rapid tests from the StaySafe Rapid Antigen Screening Program in Kitchener-Waterloo Region for free.
“We were approached by Health Canada and the region of Waterloo and the province of Ontario basically to try to roll out rapid testing to workplaces and so we decided to start a pilot initiative in Waterloo region to support workplaces,” explained Sarah Mostowich, the program lead at StaySafe.
Mostowich said recently the program has received “an influx of calls” from parents communities and from other community groups to acquire rapid test kits.
“We’ve been working closely in partnership with Health Canada and with the province and have been told that we should not have any supply issues,” she added.
The parent-led program at Earl Beatty Junior and Senior Public School began with around 60 students, but within just two weeks has ballooned to include more than half the student population.
“We were just blown away by the uptake and by the interest in the parent community and it just has exceeded all of our expectations,” said Zou.
There is no question running a program for more than 200 students requires a lot of work, she noted.
“Packaging up test kits and then having a designated pick-up window once a week where parents come by their porch and they do a very COVID safe exchange or handoff for their tests for the week,” she explained.
Maryn Madoff, whose daughter attends nearby R H McGregor Elementary School, is keen to replicate the program.
“We want the kids to be in school. We don’t want to see outbreaks at schools, cases at schools. We want to keep them safe,” she said.
Madoff acknowledged that being on maternity leave allows her the time to dedicate to launching the program, but that it may not be possible in all communities.
“I have the time that I can spend to put this program in place, to run this program, to do everything that we need to do to get the tests out, to get the kids tested,” she said.
“What I worry about is these schools where they don’t have a parent body who are able to do this because the parents are working very hard. They don’t have the time. They don’t have the ability to put this in place, the means to put it in place … And that’s why I think that we need the government to do something about this.”
For this reason, parents from both Earl Beatty and R H McGregor launched a petition, urging the Ontario government to, “make COVID-19 rapid testing available to all unvaccinated Ontario children.”
“We recognize that we are extremely fortunate and privileged to be able to put this rapid testing program together for our school. We also recognize there are other communities where a program like this could have a tremendous impact but that may not have the resources to organize one,” said Zou, adding “We hope that our advocacy efforts will help protect more kids and make schools safer for all.”
Clarissa Potter, whose child attends École élémentaire La Mosaïque, also in East York, is eager to see a similar testing program launched by the upcoming Thanksgiving long weekend.
“People are going to be getting together and this is just one other layer of protection, along with hand washing, along with wearing masks … along with getting anyone who is able to get vaccinated,” she said.
“This is just another layer of protection that would be helpful to have in our arsenal for the fight against COVID.”
The province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, has said testing students offers no additional value and that false positives could be a problem.
“We look at the evidence for all of these interventions on a regular basis and we’ll put them into play if we think there’s value, if it will help us keep our schools safe. But as I said previously, our schools are not the risk. It is the community activity. That’s the risk,” said Moore in a recent news conference.
Epidemiologist Dr. Raywat Deonandan noted the benefits of a rapid testing program in schools, given a “large contingent of students cannot be vaccinated.”
“I believe it would definitely reduce the number of cases with the caveat that, A) people have to use a test and B) they have to use them properly, and C) they have to be honest with the outcome of the test,” he said.
“But the probable outcome of this, when used properly, is that you simply remove from circulation the vast majority of infectious people on a given day, and that reduces the probability of transmission.”
For Betty Zou, the program has provided her family with peace of mind.
“Having schools open for in-person learning is so important for the health and well-being and safety of our children and this is just an additional tool that we have in the toolbox that we haven’t been using much to this point, but that we think can be really valuable in keeping schools open and keeping our kids safe,” she said.