Windsor school boards a month behind provincial target for asymptomatic testing

Asymptomatic testing for COVID-19 isn't expected to begin at schools in Windsor-Essex until at least March 19 — nearly a month after it was mandated to begin.

Minister of Education called for testing to begin on Feb. 22 and it still hasn't started

Windsor-Essex schools boards say asymptomatic testing still hasn't begun. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Asymptomatic testing for COVID-19 isn't expected to begin at schools in Windsor-Essex until at least March 19 — nearly a month after it was mandated to begin.

That date is tentative, according to Stephen Fields, spokesperson for the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board (WECDSB), and could be different if circumstances change.

The delay is due to complications caused by coordinating the testing plans with the local health unit and all four school boards, he said. The first site where testing will be carried out has yet to be determined.

"Our plan is to identify particular neighbourhoods and select schools within those neighbourhoods where all students from that community can be tested regardless of which school board they attend," Fields explained in an email.

Testing would be offered on a weekly basis and on an alternating schedule.

"It might be at a WECDSB school one week, a GECDSB school the following week and CSCP the following week," Fields added.

"As you can probably appreciate, in addition to ensuring that all of our information materials are offered in both of Canada's official languages, this takes some time and effort to coordinate."

A spokesperson for the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit said testing is a ministry initiative and it's working with the boards on an implementation plan.

"The safety of students and staff in the local school communities remains a priority for public health," Michael Janisse wrote in an email to CBC News. 

Education Minister Stephen Lecce sent a memo to larger school boards across the province in mid-February directing them to offer targeted testing in at least five per cent of their schools, reaching two per cent of their student populations weekly.

The memo called for testing to begin in regions outside of Toronto, Peel and York as of Feb. 22.

School testing was announced as modelling suggested COVID-19 variants could cause case numbers to rise, with Lecce referencing the initiative and stricter masking rules for young students as ways to keep cases low in Ontario classrooms.

Windsor West MPP Lisa Gretzky has been pushing for local boards to start the voluntary testing as a way to protect students and staff.

"There is evidence showing this would help stop the spread of COVID-19," she said in an interview with CBC Friday. "I think it's really dangerous and really unfortunate that the Minister of Education would put this perception out there that this is happening when it's not."

When asked if the fact testing had not begun in Windsor-Essex schools was a concern, a spokesperson for Lecce did not answer the question directly.

Instead, his office issued a statement saying the government has taken action to deploy asymptomatic testing and sees it as "an additional layer of protection in our schools."

"We will continue to support our school board partners in deploying asymptomatic testing in their regions in a manner that best suits their local needs," added Caitlin Clark.

'Important to do it right'

The COVID-19 lead for the WECDSB said she isn't "overly concerned" about to wait to start testing, pointing to the efforts of WECHU. 

"In the few cases that we have had since schools reopened they have been very quick to have testing take place with those cohorts that require testing," said Melissa Farrand, Superintendent of Education.

WECDSB superintendent Melissa Farrand says local boards are working to get asymptomatic testing up and running. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The board is working to start testing as soon as possible, she said, but the number of other boards and the third-party vendor has meant juggling availability.

"I think it's important to have a well-developed plan that is communicated effectively to all parties," said Farrand.

"I would rather have a plan that is as collective, well thought out and developed, rather than rushing. so I think it's important to do it right."

Outbreak at Bellewood Public School

Representatives of Conseil Scolaire Catholique Providence, Conseil Scolaire Viamonde and the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB), also confirmed testing has not begun and said the boards are still working with the vendor that will carry out testing.

"I understand part of the delay is connected to the recent involvement of all 4 boards in the testing plan," wrote GECDSB spokesperson Scott Scantlebury in an email, adding that previously just the English public and Catholic boards were working together.

Students in Windsor-Essex returned to class on Feb. 8.

Since then, the WECDSB has had seven cases and no outbreaks or school closures, said Fields.

Fourteen cases have been reported at GECDSB schools.

There have been no school closures since the return to class, but an outbreak was declared at Bellewood Public School on Friday after one student and one staff member tested positive for the virus.

"The school will remain open," said Scantlebury. "All affected students and staff have been notified."


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