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Junior and senior high schools to receive rapid COVID-19 testing in Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge, and Grande Prairie

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EDMONTON —
More Alberta students will receive access to rapid COVID-19 testing to help screen for asymptomatic cases and curb in-school transmission.

The in-school rapid COVID-19 screening and testing program will be offered in up to 300 junior and senior high schools in Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge, and Grande Prairie.

Testing will begin “as soon as possible” over the coming weeks as rapid testing teams are mobilized and deployed to schools across the province.

There will be 440,000 rapid test kits distributed to schools and testing will be offered to 220,000 students and staff in Alberta once the program is fully implemented.

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Two schools in Calgary were chosen to begin a pilot rapid testing program to help ensure staff and students attending Rundle School and St. John XXIII were without symptoms. The program lasted for three weeks and over 100,000 rapid tests were offered.

Premier Jason Kenney and Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced the program Saturday after the completion of that pilot program in March.

LaGrange said based on the “successful” pilot and positive feedback from school boards, staff, and students, the province would expand the testing program to further communities.

“We were able to learn from the experience of the pilot,” she said. “This helped us to determine the potential for the expanded program.”

Before testing is offered to anyone, consent will be gathered from students’ parents or guardians and staff members.

LaGrange said which particular schools will have the rapid testing program implemented will be determined by Alberta Health Services (AHS) and school boards but based on how prevalent COVID-19 cases are in the school and community, as well as if the school has had previous outbreaks or instances of transmission.

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Other communities and schools across the province can be added to the program if there is a rise in COVID-19 cases within that locality.

Eight school boards are participating in the expanded program including:

  • Edmonton Catholic School District
  • Edmonton Public Schools
  • Calgary Board of Education
  • Calgary Catholic Schools
  • Grande Prairie & District Catholic Schools
  • Grande Prairie Public School Division
  • Holy Spirit Catholic School Division
  • Lethbridge School Division

The program will begin with testing in schools in Edmonton and Calgary and expand as testing teams are assembled. LaGrange said more details on which schools will be involved will be released later next week.

LaGrange added that the COVID-19 testing in schools program is one more tool on top of other measures to help prevent the spread of COVID in schools.

“We are committed to ensuring in-person learning remains safe and we are working very closely with school boards on dealing with challenges that arise.”

Kenney said schools play a “critical role” in the development of young Albertans and the economy.

“That’s why we’ve worked so hard to keep schools open throughout the majority of this pandemic,” he said.

TESTING PROGRAM COMES FOUR MONTHS TOO LATE: NDP SAYS

Sarah Hoffman, Alberta NDP education critic, said in a statement that the program has come too late as the province has already entered the third wave of the pandemic.

“Today’s rapid testing announcement comes four months late, even while COVID-19 and variant cases have spread through hundreds of schools across Alberta,” Hoffman said.

“LaGrange’s re-entry plan failed in December and she closed schools,” she added. “I called on her then to bring rapid-test kits to schools before classes returned in January. She did nothing, and sat on a huge stockpile of 1.6 million tests while the virus spread and tens of thousands of students, staff and families were forced into isolation.”

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Hoffman also asked LaGrange to implement further restrictions for schools like reducing class sizes and creating a dedicated fund to support families who are keeping their children at home to learn remotely.

During the press conference, Kenney said that there is little evidence of in-school transmission.

“It is important to look at the data and listen to the expert scientific advice,” he said. “COVID does not pose a significant health risk to children, no more so than the regular flu.”

Kenney added that since Christmas, in-school transmission in the province has been identified in only 15 per cent of schools – translating to 374 schools – with half of those resulting in only one case.

Rapid testing kits have been provided to seniors lodging and long term care homes previously, as well as to oil sands workers in northern Alberta.

Other private industry partnerships have allowed rapid testing to occur at places like the Calgary International and Edmonton International Airports.

Any positive results from rapid tests are considered preliminary and must be confirmed with a lab-based test at an AHS assessment centre. Students and staff who test positive will not be ale to return to class and will have to isolate.

SCHOOL BOARDS PLEASED TO SEE EXPANSION OF RAPID TESTING PILOT PROGRAM

School boards across the province said they were pleased to see rapid testing expanding to help ensure students and staff remain safe from COVID-19.

“This is great news,” Calgary Board of Education (CBE) board chair Marilyn Dennis said in a statement.

“To date, rapid testing at CBE schools has been well-received by parents, students and staff. We look forward to the expansion to additional schools and grades, to support us in maintaining ongoing in-person learning.”

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Sandra Palazzo, Edmonton Catholic School District board chair, said in a statement that the rapid testing program will play an important role in ensuring schools can stay open for in-person learning.

“The rapid testing plan announced today by the Alberta Government will give our students and staff another layer of defence against COVID-19,” Palazzo said.

Palazzo added that the district would still like to see teachers and school support staff to be considered as front line workers so that they qualify for vaccines to ensure “maximum safety” for schools.

While the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) welcomed the announced rapid testing expansion, it said the initiative is “late” and merely “reactive” to rising cases in schools. The ATA also echoed the Edmonton Catholic schools call for teacher vaccinations.

“The most mindboggling part of today’s announcement is the decision to exclude school workers from expansions to the vaccination program,” ATA president Jason Schilling said in a statement. “This is the single biggest thing that would make teachers feel safer. Contrary to the premier’s statements, this is offside with national recommendations on immunization and with what is happening in most other provinces.”

Schilling added that many teachers and parents are “concerned” about variants of concern.

“Teachers and parents are very concerned about the rapid spread of variants of concern in our communities and schools. Last November, secondary schools moved online with 1,700 cases in schools, currently we have 2,400 cases in schools – many of them variants of concern – and nearly one-in-five schools have alerts or outbreaks.”

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