As of October 12, elementary schools in the New Frontiers School Board (NFSB) are equipped with COVID-19 rapid tests, and staff have been trained to perform the relatively non-invasive procedure on students who develop symptoms of the virus during the day. Consent forms were sent home in advance, and the NFSB guarantees that the Abbott Panbio Rapid Tests, which produce a result in 15 minutes, will only be administered to students whose parents have consented to the procedure.
“We took our time making sure everyone had the training and was comfortable,” says Michael Helm, the assistant director general at the NFSB. He admits the new responsibilities came without much warning and were a bit of a shock. “There was a lot of concern because we didn’t really know what it entailed,” he says of the government’s decision to allow testing in schools.
According to Helm, each elementary school has now identified volunteer support staff members who will complete the rapid-testing procedure. All volunteer staff were asked to follow training sessions provided by the Ministry of Education; however, the NFSB went a step further by scheduling three in-person training sessions with nurses. The sessions covered how to safely put on and remove the protective equipment, how to approach a student and make sure they are comfortable, how to perform the quality control test, and finally how to perform the rapid test, which involves a shallow swab of the base of the nose.
Standard school procedures are still in effect when it comes to COVID-19 symptoms, and parents are asked to keep children at home if they are unwell. A test will only be administered if a student develops symptoms associated with the novel coronavirus during the day that would not normally warrant a call to parents. Results from the test are available within 15 minutes, and students who test negative for COVID-19 will be allowed to return to class. The schools are responsible for reporting the results of any administered tests directly to the Ministry of Education.
The parents of students who receive the rapid test at school will be notified of the results, and of any relevant public health recommendations for monitoring or further testing.
The family of any student whose condition deteriorates during the day – to the extent that they would normally be sent home, pre-pandemic – will still be called by the school to pick up their child. In such cases, parents may be advised to have their child tested at an external clinic or testing centre.
For the NFSB, one of the most important considerations in relation to this new mandate was how intrusive it was going to be. “We want to be in a situation where we are focusing on the education of our students. We are being called again to step up and support the public health sector. We are managing this, but it is a delicate line,” says Helm.
“As much as we are now in a better place with the procedure, we are not sure where parents are with it,” he says, admitting there is a lot of uncertainty and that this is understandable.
“There is absolutely no pressure on parents,” he insists.
Helm acknowledges that responding to the frequent demands on the education system has been challenging but says the NFSB will continue to work closely with public health authorities to minimize the possibility of the virus spreading through schools. He says the board is fully expecting to be called upon once again to help coordinate the vaccination campaign for elementary-aged students once a vaccine is approved for that age group.