Alberta expands COVID-19 rapid testing program to hundreds of schools

Alberta is expanding a rapid testing program in schools to cover up to 200,000 students and 20,000 staff following a pilot in two Calgary schools.

ATA president frustrated teachers still not given vaccine priority

Students line up to have their hands sanitized at a northwest Calgary school on the first day back in September 2020. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Alberta is expanding a rapid testing program in schools to test up to 200,000 students and 20,000 staff.

It follows a pilot in two Calgary schools launched last month. Now the province is setting up teams to expand the program to up to 300 schools across the province, first in Edmonton and Calgary and followed by Lethbridge and Grande Prairie.

"To ensure schools are able to operate during this third wave of COVID, we're significantly expanding rapid testing to more schools and regions of the province as soon as possible," Premier Jason Kenney said during a media availability Saturday.

About 440,000 rapid tests from the federal government are set to be distributed to the schools. The province is promising rapid testing teams in all school regions by mid-April before operating at full capacity mid-May.

Kenney said the government is limiting the program's scope as the swab tests require some technical training to administer. 

"There simply isn't enough capacity [for all schools] ...  but we're going to the maximum that we possibly can with the resources that are available."

He said private sector vendors were being brought in to assist in the program.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said she had heard positive feedback from the pilot in two Calgary schools and expects parents will want to know when testing may be available.

"I ask for your patience as we sort out the details of when and where and then allow time for schools to gather consent," she said.

Rapid testing teams may also be deployed at schools outside the four selected municipalities should Alberta Health identify a need, according to a news release.

Junior and high schools are being prioritized based on factors like the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community.

Eight school boards are set to participate in the program:

  • 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.

Students and staff without symptoms and not identified as close contacts can get the optional test while attending school. Results are typically available at the school within the hour but need to be confirmed by an AHS lab test.

Several school boards issued supportive statements in response to the expansion announcement, including Calgary Board of Education and Edmonton Public Schools.

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said in a news release that rapid testing in schools should have been implemented earlier, calling the announcement "too little, too late" and advocating for further actions like reducing class sizes.

Since the beginning of this school term, the province has reported 374 schools — about 15 per cent, — have had in-school transmission across 1,373 cases.

Teachers not prioritized for vaccine

Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, welcomes the rapid testing program but says it's not enough.

"It's another reactive measure, when we should be looking at proactive measures," he said, adding that he is frustrated school staff have not been moved up in the vaccine rollout.

"The government has made it a priority to keep schools open and so they should be making the people who work in those buildings a priority for the vaccinations."

Kenney said during the availability that the vaccination plan is based on expert scientific advice, focusing on those most likely to suffer negative outcomes from COVID-19. 

"We wish we could vaccinate teachers and everybody as soon as possible, but it depends on supply," he said. 

"The good news is that we're finally starting to get some decent supply. And we're responding by ramping up our vaccine program."

The premier also announced a partial start to Phase 2C of the provincial vaccine rollout on Monday, which will include dentists and pharmacists. 

He said the province expects over 100,000 doses of vaccines to be shipped to Alberta every week throughout the spring.


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