Pilot project looks at rapid testing
While the Quebec government continues to question whether the province should use more rapid COVID-19 tests, a pilot project is studying how effective the tests can be in two Montreal schools.
Launched Monday, the project aims to see whether rapid testing can help curb transmission in schools and reduce how long classmates need to move to distance learning after a positive case.
Every week, 25 per cent of students and staff at both schools will be tested at random to weed out positive cases and quickly isolate any infected person.
“It feels like a chance to participate in a positive page of COVID history,” said Yves Petit, director general of the Pensionnat du Saint-nom-de-marie, one of the two schools included in the project.
If the project proves successful, it could push the Quebec government to deploy rapid testing in more schools — something the province has so far refused to do, despite mounting pressure.
The rapid tests are easier to use and can return results in less than 15 minutes. But in a report published two weeks ago, a committee looking into the issue for the province warned they're less accurate than traditional COVID -19 testing methods.
If deployed “intelligently and prudently,” however, the committee found the tests can play a key role in controlling the pandemic.
In recent weeks, both public health experts and opposition parties have urged the Quebec government to use the tests more widely. Many have expressed they feel the province has nothing to lose by using them as an additional measure, especially in school settings.
This week, Le Devoir reported that Quebec has so far used only 13,000 of the more than two million rapid tests it received from the federal government.
The provincial health department told the newspaper it intends to maximize their use through pilot projects in “living environments” and projects such as the one started at schools this week. The department did not return a request for comment on this story Friday.
Asked about the criticism at a news conference Thursday, Health Minister Christian Dubé said the province “has nothing against” rapid tests, but again warned there are concerns about how accurate they are.
“We've wanted to be prudent and make sure we are using them in the right circumstances,” Dubé added.
Meanwhile, at Calixa Lavallée High School, where the tests were rolled out this week, principal Dominic Besner says he feels the pilot project could be a game-changer for his students.
The school is in Montreal North, one of the hardest-hit neighbourhoods in the country. Many of its students have parents working in the health network or other essential jobs that have put them at higher risk. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the school has been forced to close 58 classrooms and has seen 75 students and 10 staff members test positive.
One part of the project consists of reopening classrooms seven days after a confirmed case instead of the usual 14, with the tests being used to monitor the students upon return.
That possibility alone, Besner said, would be “enormous for our students' progress.”
In terms of consent, Besner said 140 staff members immediately agreed to take part in the project. Getting students on board has been a bit more challenging, but he expects to have about 50 per cent of the school's 1,800 students participating.
Consent forms have been sent out to families in five languages, he noted. A group of Grade 10 students has also been touring the school to demonstrate how non-invasive the tests are.
“At first, I figured we would participate for the scientific aspect and to help move that forward,” Besner said of the project. “But now I see how it's also really advantageous for our school.”