All students attending a public or independent school in British Columbia must now be wearing a face mask to attend class.
On Friday, the province extended its mask mandate to include its youngest learners — from kindergarten to Grade 3 — and that policy comes into effect Monday.
The decision was welcomed by many parents and educators who had been calling on the government to require face coverings for all students — but some experts now say that rapid tests should also be introduced in B.C. schools.
"I think it's a good idea to at least start a pilot program," said Paul Tupper, a professor of mathematics and COVID modeller at Simon Fraser University.
He said rapid antigen tests — which involve a nasal swab and look for pieces of protein made by the coronavirus — could be administered weekly to all students and staff in a classroom to detect if the virus has infiltrated the group. Rapid testing can also determine if a person is sick, even if they are not exhibiting symptoms.
People can transmit the coronavirus without showing symptoms of it, while seasonal influenza — which has similar symptoms — is expected to return with a vengeance this fall.
In the U.K. and Germany, free rapid tests are available from the government through the mail and at pharmacies.
The trade-off with rapid tests, compared to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests — considered the "gold standard" in testing for COVID-19 — is that while they give results in minutes compared to hours, they are not as accurate.
But Tupper says in a school setting it is still better to know earlier if there is the possibility of transmission, in order to notify others right away.
"It's much better to get your results fast then to have them be 100 per cent accurate," he told CBC's The Early Edition Monday morning.
Reduce family stress
Dr. Fatima Kakkar, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and doctor at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Sainte-Justine in Montreal, says rapid testing could also ease stress for families who have to pull children from school if a COVID exposure is suspected.
When a child comes down with a fever or runny nose, Kakkar said taking a PCR test can be disruptive because it requires a day or two off from school or work while waiting for results. Families of children in the same class also want to know results quickly.
According to Kakkar, quick and easy rapid tests would lead to more frequent testing. It would be especially helpful in northern and remote communities — and not just at schools, but also workplaces and venues hosting weddings and sporting events, for example.
Carmen Cho, chair of the Vancouver School Board, said Monday she welcomes the mask mandate for younger students and any other measures that could help protect children, but at this time there have been no discussions between the board and the province about rapid tests.
Hard to come by in Canada
This could be because rapid testing is heavily regulated in Canada.
During a news conference Friday, B.C.'s provincial health officer was asked why rapid testing was not playing a bigger role in controlling COVID-19 in schools.
"I think there is a role for that," said Dr. Bonnie Henry, who said the province is experiencing an uptick in PCR testing for children right now.
But Henry said rapid tests like those available in the U.K. are not currently available in B.C.
She said for the time being, the province is making PCR gargle tests more available at schools and pharmacies.
Kakkar said she hopes to see rapid tests become more widely available in the weeks ahead.
Health Canada is continuing to review new testing options.