Some Toronto parents have built their own rapid testing program from scratch at their children's elementary school — finding an Ontario supplier, driving hundreds of kilometres to pick up the kits multiple times a month and spreading the news by word of mouth.
So far this school year, their efforts mean 280 students at Earl Beatty Junior and Senior Public School, in the city's east end, and some of their siblings are participating in the twice-a-week testing regime, completing close to 1,000 tests to date, said program founder Sam Kaufman, whose eight-year-old son, Asa, is a student at the school.
"The idea of this kind of screening is to catch cases early," Kaufman, a data scientist, told CBC News.
"You may not be able to prevent a classroom from going home, but hopefully you prevent many kids from getting sick and the outbreak getting out of control."
The tests were donated by the Stay Safe program, a partnership based in the Waterloo region west of Toronto that helps businesses and communities scale up rapid testing.
Kaufman said he's frustrated at the Ontario government's refusal to spearhead rapid testing efforts in schools, especially as he sees outbreaks mount. The City of Toronto is reporting 11 schools are currently experiencing outbreaks and a Durham Region school has closed for at least two weeks with students going back to online learning.
"I don't understand why we wouldn't use every tool we have to try to keep COVID out of our schools," he said.
School board doesn't support rapid testing
In Toronto, case rates have also increased for four- to 11-year-olds in the past few weeks and are now the highest of all age groups for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city's medical officer of health, told a board of health meeting on Monday.
The majority of cases are not linked to school transmission but rather to parents and caregivers at home, she said.
Neither Toronto Public Health nor the province recommend surveillance testing like the program at Earl Beatty, and so it's not supported by the Toronto District School Board, said spokesperson Ryan Bird.
Ontario's chief medical officer, Dr. Kieran Moore, told reporters Friday that large-scale antigen testing doesn't significantly limit the spread of COVID-19 and can produce false positives that lead to people getting unnecessary PCR tests and burdening labs.
"It would be difficult for us to test two million children every day or twice a week or three times a week," Moore said.
However, he said, the province is considering using rapid tests in schools where the community rate is high, at more than 100 cases per 100,000 people.
The province will also require all school staff not fully vaccinated to regularly complete rapid tests and does supply them to businesses and other workplaces.
An online petition started by parents calling for the province to provide rapid testing to all kids not yet eligible for vaccination has reached 2,000 signatures.
Experts support rapid testing
The rapid antigen tests organized by the parents in Toronto are intended for students who don't have any COVID-19 symptoms or known exposures, said Kaufman. That's different than the take-home testing kits that three hospitals are supplying across city schools, which are only for kids showing symptoms or who have experienced a high-risk exposure.
The rapid tests, while less reliable, display results within 15 minutes at home, according to Stay Safe.
If a student tests positive, parents are advised to report the result to the nearby Michael Garron Hospital and get a lab-based test, Kaufman said.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist with Toronto's University Health Network, is one of many experts who say rapid testing has a role to play in making indoor spaces such as schools safer.
"They're really there to answer the question: 'Am I contagious with the virus right now?'" Bogoch said.
"Of course, they're not perfect, but they're pretty good at doing it and if they were distributed among families, I think we could do a lot of good with those tests."
Kaufman said he realizes that unlike the parents involved at his school, who have the time and resources to run the program with help from Stay Safe, those in other communities may need more help from their school boards, public health units or the province to get access to similar testing.
He said every day he hears from parents across the province and country who want to start something similar.
"Not every parent group who wants these tests can get them," he said.
"People can't drive from Ottawa to Waterloo to pick up a test, which is what we're hearing. And even the fact that I have to drive from Toronto to pick up the tests is kind of crazy."
On Tuesday, Communitech, the tech hub that oversees Stay Safe, clarified to CBC Kitchener-Waterloo that school testing doesn't fit within the program's scope.
"I do want to emphasize that the intent of the program is to bring the rapid kits into workplaces, to keep businesses open and workers safe," said spokesperson Matthew Bondy.
"We will be communicating with stakeholders over the next days that the focus of the program remains on work places, as originally agreed by all parties."