Rapid testing will be available starting this week to unvaccinated students who are a close contact of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
The initiative, which mainly targets children under age 12 who are currently ineligible to be vaccinated, comes after a person under 19 was hospitalized due to the virus.
Last year, "contact tracing was what we needed to be able to keep close to zero cases," Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Dominic Cardy told Information Morning Fredericton on Tuesday.
This year, however, that's not enough, he said.
"We're adding the testing because clearly the evidence says that's necessary."
More than a quarter of the province's schools – 94 schools and 45 early learning and child-care facilities – have reported a COVID-19 case since the start of the school year in September.
How it works
If a school has a confirmed COVID-19 case, all students identified as close contacts will contacted by Public Health with information about self-isolation and/or self-monitoring.
If the student is unvaccinated, parents will be notified of the rapid test program and how their child can participate.
Parents will have the choice of a five-day or 15-day supply of rapid tests, depending on the last possible exposure date to the person who was a confirmed case, Cardy said.
The tests will be taken back to school for verification after a period of isolation has passed, which is determined by Public Health.
An email sent to parents in the Anglophone School District West says the isolation period would be 24 hours, unless otherwise outlined by public health authorities.
"If a student produces two consecutive negative rapid tests in 24 hours and has no symptoms, they can return to school the following day with their negative tests," reads the email from district superintendent David McTimoney.
"Students will be required to continue taking the rapid tests each day before school for the duration of their original isolation period. In addition, each day, negative tests will need to be brought to school and shown to the school's assigned personnel."
If a student receives a positive COVID-19 rapid test result or displays one symptom, they must stay at home and contact Public Health.
Students who do not participate in the program will be required to stay home and self-isolate for the entire isolation period determined by Public Health.
"School is incredibly important for the overall well-being of our students – not only for learning but for their mental and physical health," wrote McTimoney.
"We hope that this program will allow students to experience fewer disruptions to schooling and help slow the spread of COVID-19 in our schools and community."
How will the program change as needs evolve?
The program could be changed as the program progresses, Cardy said.
"The goal here is to get the cases down. This is a tool to do that, we'll use it to see what happens, and move ahead accordingly."
When asked why they've opted not to follow an approach similar to that of Nova Scotia, which has given families with children in pre-primary to Grade 6 four free COVID-19 rapid testing kits, Cardy said it's important to plan ahead and safeguard test supplies in case things get worse.
"Long-term issues around supply ... is something else that weighs on me," said Cardy.
"We've got to be responsible and careful with the resources we have, because things can be much more difficult than they are now," he said.
"Having cases hovering around 100 a day is nowhere near as bad as things could be."
What about vaccinated students?
Although people who are vaccinated are much less likely to transmit the virus or experience severe symptoms, they are still not immune.
When asked why vaccinated students aren't eligible to receive rapid COVID-19 testing kits, Cardy said it's a matter of utilizing resources wisely.
"We will follow the next couple of weeks with the plan that has currently rolled out, only targeting kids who are unvaccinated, and then see what the evidence suggests," Cardy said.
"We want to make sure we have a system in place that's actually not going to add too much additional stress to the schools."