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A Grade 2 classroom is shown at Hunter's Glen Junior Public School in Toronto, on Sept. 14, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Only in the past two weeks has the Saskatchewan government started shipping rapid COVID-19 tests to schools. Alberta piloted a rapid testing program in two schools late last month. And in Ontario, some regions have sent take-home testing kits with students, while others direct families to pharmacies and testing centres.

More than a year into the pandemic, one thing is clear: Provincial governments do not have a consistent plan when it comes to COVID-19 testing of students and school staff.

“Certainly testing would have gone a long way to early detection and potentially prevent the need to move online,” said Patrick Maze, head of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation.

Several school divisions in his province, including Regina Public Schools, have temporarily switched to remote learning as concern grows around recent COVID-19 infections and the spread of variants. In Ontario, where some educators have called for a move back to remote learning to curb the spread of the virus, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said on Thursday that schools would remain open and that he would introduce new safety measures shortly.

There is worry in some quarters that COVID-19 testing of students and staff – one of the measures that has been promoted as a way to keep schools open during the pandemic – hasn’t been properly rolled out, if at all, by provincial governments. In Quebec, for example, there is no plan for systematic use of asymptomatic testing in schools, and public-health officials have been reluctant to deploy rapid tests because they are less accurate.

Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson: Which COVID-19 vaccine will I get in Canada?

Canada pre-purchased millions of doses of seven different vaccine types, and Health Canada has approved four so far for the various provincial and territorial rollouts. All the drugs are fully effective in preventing serious illness and death, though some may do more than others to stop any symptomatic illness at all (which is where the efficacy rates cited below come in).

PFIZER-BIONTECH

  • Also known as: Comirnaty
  • Approved on: Dec. 9, 2020
  • Efficacy rate: 95 per cent with both doses in patients 16 and older, and 100 per cent in 12- to 15-year-olds
  • Traits: Must be stored at -70 C, requiring specialized ultracold freezers. It is a new type of mRNA-based vaccine that gives the body a sample of the virus’s DNA to teach immune systems how to fight it. Health Canada has authorized it for use in people as young as 12.

MODERNA

  • Also known as: SpikeVax
  • Approved on: Dec. 23, 2020
  • Efficacy rate: 94 per cent with both doses in patients 18 and older, and 100 per cent in 12- to 17-year-olds
  • Traits: Like Pfizer’s vaccine, this one is mRNA-based, but it can be stored at -20 C. It’s approved for use in Canada for ages 12 and up.

OXFORD-ASTRAZENECA

  • Also known as: Vaxzevria
  • Approved on: Feb. 26, 2021
  • Efficacy rate: 62 per cent two weeks after the second dose
  • Traits: This comes in two versions approved for Canadian use, the kind made in Europe and the same drug made by a different process in India (where it is called Covishield). The National Advisory Committee on Immunization’s latest guidance is that its okay for people 30 and older to get it if they can’t or don’t want to wait for an mRNA vaccine, but to guard against the risk of a rare blood-clotting disorder, all provinces have stopped giving first doses of AstraZeneca.

JOHNSON & JOHNSON

  • Also known as: Janssen
  • Approved on: March 5, 2021
  • Efficacy rate: 66 per cent two weeks after the single dose
  • Traits: Unlike the other vaccines, this one comes in a single injection. NACI says it should be offered to Canadians 30 and older, but Health Canada paused distribution of the drug for now as it investigates inspection concerns at a Maryland facility where the active ingredient was made.

How many vaccine doses do I get?

All vaccines except Johnson & Johnson’s require two doses, though even for double-dose drugs, research suggests the first shots may give fairly strong protection. This has led health agencies to focus on getting first shots to as many people as possible, then delaying boosters by up to four months. To see how many doses your province or territory has administered so far, check our vaccine tracker for the latest numbers.

Coronavirus tracker: How many COVID-19 cases are there in Canada and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

Tracking Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plans: A continuing guide

In Mr. Maze’s province, the government said in late March, seven months into the academic year, that it was shipping 100,000 rapid antigen tests to schools. Chelsey Balaski, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education, said that the government is identifying third-party providers to use these tests in schools and other settings.

Rapid tests can be done on the spot for screening purposes of asymptomatic people in contexts such as schools or work sites. The tests use a short nasal swab and take 15 minutes for results. They have not been used on students as yet, Mr. Maze said.

“If we had rapid testing being administered in schools in Saskatchewan a few months ago, back when they were first received from the federal government, it is very likely the variant outbreak in Regina could have been detected much sooner, and full-school shutdown … could all have been prevented,” Mr. Maze said.

Similarly, Alberta piloted rapid antigen testing in two of its Calgary schools only last month. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange told reporters in March that the pilot testing program in schools was used to screen students and staff who don’t have any symptoms. “We need to learn from this trial experience,” she said. Her office indicated that more information would be shared in the coming weeks.

Nisha Thampi, the medical director of infection prevention and control at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, in Ottawa, said that in order for schools to remain open, testing “needs to be ramped up” and it needs to be more accessible. “We have to do better in testing asymptomatic high-risk contacts,” Dr. Thampi said.

In Ontario, the government mandated in February that all school boards offer tests in 5 per cent of their schools every week – and to at least 2 per cent of their students. Of the province’s 72 boards, five have yet to launch their testing program. Some areas of the province, particularly Toronto, have offered home-test kits to families when there’s a positive case in the classroom. Elsewhere, families and teachers have been told to drive to testing centres or pharmacies.

Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lecce, did not directly respond to a question as to why the province hasn’t made the testing program more consistent. The ministry is exploring different testing approaches, including the use of take-home kits. “We will continue to promote and encourage all students, staff and families to take advantage of this program – which uses the least invasive testing options possible,” Ms. Clark said.

Marit Stiles, the NDP’s education critic, said that she is concerned that testing is not accessible and families are not being properly informed.

“The government had six months to roll this out and put a plan in place. Instead we’re getting this slap-dash approach,” Ms. Stiles said. “Why is it that some hospitals or some regions are able to do this in a more effective way, and [others aren’t able to]? The government hasn’t played a leadership role here.”

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