Sask. Opposition NDP calls for rapid COVID-19 testing in schools

·3 min read
Carla Beck is the education critic for Saskatchewan's NDP. (Bryan Eneas/CBC - image credit)
Carla Beck is the education critic for Saskatchewan's NDP. (Bryan Eneas/CBC - image credit)

Saskatchewan's Official Opposition is calling for rapid COVID-19 testing to be deployed in schools as soon as possible.

NDP education critic Carla Beck said the province has been sitting on rapid tests and needs to get them into schools as soon as possible, as the number of COVID-19 cases stemming from highly transmissible coronavirus variants is growing.

"This is no time for the premier to give up his responsibility to provide direction and leadership in our schools," she said Thursday. "This is urgent. This call is coming across the board."

School divisions in Regina are now being told to assume the majority or all of their COVID-19 cases could involve coronavirus variants of concern, which are more transmissible than the original virus that causes COVID-19.

Regina has the majority of the province's cases stemming from variants — 121 of the 135 confirmed in Saskatchewan as of Thursday.

Beck said having data from rapid tests in schools would go a long way to help determine what to do next.

"I think it's important that before we go into that Easter break, that we have very clear data about what transmission rates look like in our schools, the number of variant cases in our schools, how many of those cases are present," Beck said.

"And right now, we don't have that. We don't have clear communication. We don't have clear data. We have various reporting techniques around the province and this is leading to a lot of speculation and concern."

Last month, the premier said rapid testing in Saskatchewan "should have been dispersed sooner."

Beck said the Opposition is not calling to close schools in Regina at the moment.

"There are a lot of reasons to do everything we can now to avoid further lockdown," she said. "Perhaps we get to a point, if transmission is not controlled, where there's no call but to lock down schools."

Health Minister Paul Merriman noted Thursday in a news conference that there is a request on SaskTenders for a company or organization to do the work of testing in schools.

STF president frustrated tests haven't been deployed

Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation president Patrick Maze echoed Beck in saying he wants rapid testing in schools quickly and is frustrating they haven't been deployed yet.

"Waiting for [cases] to show up is irresponsible," Maze said. "We do not want to have to shut down schools for six weeks."

Maze also said priority vaccination would have gone a long way to making sure schools are safe places again.

When asked if he thought schools were unsafe at the moment, he said, "Definitely."

"If we had the rapid tests, we could at least be detecting where the … [coronavirus] variant is in our schools and make proactive measures from there. Right now, we're just kind of reacting," he said.

Merriman said Thursday that the sticking point is the availability of people to do the testing.

"It's kind of division-by-division, is what we're looking at," he said.

"So again, we're going to continue to work with them to be able to find out if they want them. Some of the school divisions have expressed interest in this, but they have to have somebody there to administer the test."

Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer, said additional measures are being taken in Regina to follow up with close contacts of variant cases to work out if they need more testing before returning to work or school. That's not a school-specific measure, Shahab said, but a community-wide one.