Schools in Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Grande Prairie will soon be able to receive COVID-19 rapid tests, Premier Jason Kenney announced Saturday.
Kenney said the province will be distributing close to 400,000 tests to up to 300 schools, covering up to 200,000 students and 20,000 teachers. The focus will initially be on Grades 7 to 12, with schools in Edmonton and Calgary receiving tests first. The expansion comes after a pilot program was run in March at two schools in Calgary.
“This is significant,” said Kenney. “To put this in perspective, it’s almost a third of all students in Alberta who we think will benefit.”
Kenney said tests can be distributed to schools in other communities if there is a need. He said there is not enough capacity of trained professionals who can administer the tests to every school in the province. The province said rapid screening tests may potentially detect the virus quickly in people who don’t have symptoms, allowing them to immediately isolate.
The province has identified in-school transmission at 374 schools — approximately 15 per cent of all schools in Alberta — since Christmas. Kenney said there have been 1,373 cases, accounting for about 0.12 per cent of all students, in that term.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said she hopes to have tests available for schools “as soon as possible.” She hopes to have the program fully operational by mid-May.
“It depends on the level of interest that we get from schools,” said LaGrange. “In the pilot, we found that 60 per cent of students and staff consented to having the test done or the parents agreed to getting up to that 300 capacity.”
NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said the government’s announcement comes too late, saying the government has done too little to support schools.
“Once again, Jason Kenney’s government has done too little, too late. Kenney’s dithering puts Alberta families and businesses at risk and harms our prospects for economic recovery,” said Hoffman.
ATA calls for vaccination priority for educators
Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, released a statement Saturday welcoming the rapid test kits but said it is not enough to protect schools. He said teachers would feel more comfortable in their classrooms if they were eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
“This decision is reactive and late when schools need proactive solutions in this race against COVID spread,” said Schilling. “The most mind-boggling part of today’s announcement is the decision to exclude school workers from expansions to the vaccination program. This is the single biggest thing that would make teachers feel safer.”
Edmonton Catholic Schools welcomed the rapid-testing expansion, but also echoed the ATA’s call for vaccines.
“Allowing for teachers and school support staff to be considered front-line workers so that they can be vaccinated now would ensure maximum safety for our schools,” board chair Sandra Palazzo said in a news release.
There has been a push in several jurisdictions across the country, including Ontario and B.C., for teachers to be eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.
In Alberta, teachers are currently not slated to receive any priority to receive a COVID-19 vaccination unless they fall into one of the other priority groups. Kenney said this decision was made based on advice from the National Scientific Advisory Committee, and the Alberta Scientific Advisory Committee as well, advice he said was confirmed by the provincial chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw.
“We are not going to do this based on through arbitrary pressure but rather the scientific advice,” said Kenney.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) has posted recommendations online on how vaccine distribution should be prioritized. In those recommendations, teachers and school staff who cannot work from home are included in Phase 2 as essential workers.
– with files from The Canadian Press