Parents eager for take-home PCR and rapid tests to come to Ontario schools, but details are scant

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Pamela Libralesso says having the option to use a take-home PCR test or rapid test could have helped make testing more accessible for her family this week, when one of her son's classmates tested positive for COVID-19. (Submitted by Pamela Libralesso - image credit)
Pamela Libralesso says having the option to use a take-home PCR test or rapid test could have helped make testing more accessible for her family this week, when one of her son's classmates tested positive for COVID-19. (Submitted by Pamela Libralesso - image credit)

Two COVID-19 scares led Pamela Libralesso to drive both her sons across town to the local testing site in Barrie, Ont., on separate occasions in recent weeks.

First, there was an outbreak at her Grade 7 son's school. Then, a student in her 15-year-old's class tested positive. All of the students in that class live with physical, intellectual or other disabilities.

"Knowing what I know about who is in that classroom, that was a lot more scary," she said, adding that her older son lives in a congregate setting during the week.

While all test results came back negative, the experience of waiting in a long line, along with the recent rise in cases in Ontario, left her wondering when students would be able to get the tests at school.

"This seems like the perfect place that they should be used — in a classroom full of people with medical complexities and their educators," said Libralesso.

Expanding school testing

Following public pressure to offer more testing options in schools, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced last month that the province would provide a supply of take-home polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing kits to all 4,800 of the province's publicly funded schools starting in mid-November, along with rapid antigen tests for schools with major outbreaks.

But with days to go until the "phased rollout" is set to begin on Nov. 15, some public health units have yet to receive any tests and details about how the program will work are scant.

In a statement, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit said it doesn't expect to receive any PCR tests until late November or early December. As for the rapid tests, the health unit is currently reviewing different scenarios where they may be used.

There are currently nine active school outbreaks in the region, linked to 30 cases in total.

"We, as a board, at this point do not have any information with respect to the program or how the program will run," said Jodi Lloyd, chair of the Simcoe County District School Board, about the take-home PCR testing program.

Lloyd said she and board chairs across the province had a conference call with Lecce on Tuesday, where the minister indicated that tests would be distributed to public health units and school boards by the end of November.

According to Lloyd. Lecce said the details of the program would be worked out in meetings between the education ministry and boards in the coming days.

"Some of this stuff has been delayed, but I think everybody's working as quickly as they can," she said.

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When announcing the expanded school testing program, the government said the idea is to prevent school closures and make it easier for families than booking a testing appointment at a COVID-19 assessment centre.

An Oct. 28 news release from the Ministry of Education said parents with a symptomatic child will have to pick up a take-home test from their child's school and must drop them off at a provincial assessment centre or participating pharmacy for processing.

Students accessing rapid tests must be asymptomatic and would be tested five times on alternating days over a period of 10 days.

PCR tests, which require processing at a provincial lab and typically take 24 to 48 hours to produce a result, are more accurate at detecting the virus that causes COVID-19 than rapid tests that provide a result in minutes.

Barriers to access

Benjamin Avdicevic, a Mississauga resident and father of three girls, said he is also frustrated with the lack of access to alternative testing options to date.

Earlier this week, when one of his daughters developed symptoms consistent with COVID-19, he went to their school to request a take-home test but was told by a staff member the school didn't have any.

He and his wife decided not to bring her to a testing centre because a previous trip left two of his daughters in tears. Instead, they kept her at home.

"That little barrier, not being able to get that convenience at home ... we didn't take her," said Avdicevic.

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A spokesperson for Peel Region's public health unit said it has already received 5,000 rapid tests from the province for use in schools, but no PCR tests yet.

"We continue to await further details from the Ministry of Health around wide reaching PCR test availability for all schools," Jeff LeMoine wrote in an email.

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