Students in three of Saskatchewan's major urban centres will have access to voluntary COVID-19 tests at school in the coming days, but some parents have mixed emotions about sending their kids to get swabbed.
Last week, Saskatchewan's Health Minister Jim Reiter announced the on-site testing would commence in Regina, with Campbell Collegiate being the first school in the province to have kids tested on site.
Donna Schell has a daughter set to start high school at Campbell this year. While she feels the province and Saskatchewan's Health officials have done a good job managing the pandemic, she's "on the fence" when it comes to the in-school test.
Schell said one of the reasons she's hesitant is because the province has been unable to reach its goal capacity of 4,000 tests a day in a sustainable fashion. Saskatchewan Health Authority CEO Scott Livingstone said last week while the authority could handle a single day of 3,000 to 4,000 tests, it does not have the capacity to sustain that level for a prolonged period of time. The SHA is currently in the process of recruiting lab staff to increase its capacity.
Schell's worried that if her daughter decides to get tested, she may be taking tests away from people who are in greater need.
"There are going to be sick people out there who are going to need these tests," she said, noting high demand for drive-thru testing in Regina has created lineups. "I'd rather leave it for people that actually need the test, and not overload the labs and things like that that have to get those results back to people."
Schell said communication between her family and the school division has been solid, and she's been kept apprised of the process and what is required of parents and families in terms of the consent form.
Her daughter is nervous about the test, but they've done everything they can to ensure she has the information she needs to take COVID-19 seriously without being gripped by fear. They've already had discussions about the voluntary testing and said they want their daughter to be the one who makes the final decision.
Alongside Campbell Collegiate, the province announced testing will also take place at Carlton Comprehensive High School in Prince Albert on Sept. 17 and 18 and at Holy Cross High School in Saskatoon on Sept. 17.
While this will be the first round of testing in schools, Livingstone said the SHA does not anticipate a major spike in tests, nor has it been overly challenged when it comes to testing capacity so far throughout the pandemic.
Joey White has two children attending Holy Cross, including a senior who has opted for in-classroom learning this year.
White said he's feeling pretty good about the upcoming round of testing, as he feels schools should be monitored closely for COVID-19 as people start to re-converge.
However, he said he'd like to see the effort targeted at students who are potentially higher risk.
"The biggest concern I have is that they focus on the people who may be more prone to having it, or contracting it," he said, as a student who participates in a group activity outside of school may have a larger scope of contacts.
"People that do extracurricular sports. Hockey, baseball, that kind of stuff — outside of the school area — compared to people that are just coming home after school and just hang out at home."
He said while he's feeling comfortable about the on-site testing, there has been some confusion around the return to school overall.
"Everything has been changing these last couple of weeks," he said.
While he's still waiting to receive the consent form from Holy Cross, his son will be getting tested for COVID-19 once the process gets underway.
Dr. Anne Huang is a former deputy medical health officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority. She feels the province is making a "proactive" choice in implementing the voluntary testing at Saskatchewan schools.
"We've heard lots about the need to have early diagnosis, because testing and diagnosis of a person infected with the Coronavirus early on allows us to implement public health isolation measures and contact-tracing earlier," she said. "That reduces further spread from an index case."
Dr. Huang said school environments are at higher risk for transmission of the virus and the on-site testing will serve as a form of surveillance testing. While it's impractical to test every single individual at a school, this may allow health officials to have access to a decent sample population.
"This serves as an early-warning system for our primary and secondary school system within Saskatchewan and similar methods have been deployed to contain and manage other communicable diseases as well," she said.
Huang said she hopes to see the province expand in-school testing to rural communities as well, as while it makes sense to start in the major urban high schools, rural communities also need an early-warning system to help them contain any COVID-19 cases.