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Fast coronavirus antigen tests to be piloted in public schools

The return to school has faced continuing challenges in the face of the surge in Omicron cases and burden on the Government’s Covid-19 testing capacity (File photograph)

The Government is to introduce a pilot at-home coronavirus antigen test programme at some schools, The Royal Gazette understands.

A letter said to be from Kalmar Richards, the Commissioner of Education, was sent to “system leaders” after a backlog of PCR test results, mandatory for public schoolchildren and staff to return to school, built up.

The letter said: “Antigen testing is faster, more efficient and requires fewer resources than saliva screening.

“At-home antigen testing can be done in the privacy of one’s home and eliminates disruption to teaching and learning schedules in schools.“

The letter said that although some parents may prefer PCR saliva testing, at-home antigen testing was “a more sustainable and cost-effective approach”.

The pilot programme is scheduled to start on Sunday at 12 schools and run for four weeks.

Parents and staff at the schools involved will be briefed on the pilot programme this week and asked for their views.

The letter added: “This information will be used to help improve the design and delivery of the at-home antigen testing programme for the Bermuda public school system.”

The news came after teachers in the government system and parents yesterday appealed to the Government to use Covid-19 antigen tests to ensure a faster return of children to their classrooms.

Schools part of the pilot at-home antigen test programme

St Paul's Preschool, Victor Scott Preschool, Southampton Preschool, Northlands Primary, St David's Primary, Gilbert Institute, Purvis Primary, Somerset Primary, Port Royal Primary, Sandys Secondary Middle School, Whitney Institute and The Berkeley Institute.

The mother of a schoolchild said she was told by education officials that her son, who recently received a clear PCR test result, had to take another test to return to school this week.

But she added: “I couldn’t book another PCR test until this Thursday because they were fully booked. I don’t know how long it will take to receive the results.

“It is hard for parents to take time off work to look after their children at home. I just had to take unpaid leave and I’m already having a hard time financially.”

One primary schoolteacher, who asked not to be named, questioned why public schools had to use PCR tests, which need lab analysis.

She said: “The private schools do the antigen tests twice a week — it would rectify the hold up at the lab.

“You have quick, same-day results. You are not holding up any parents nor the progress of children’s educational development. It doesn’t add up.”

Questions sent to the Government

How many pupils and staff in total are remote learning this week?

How many pupils and staff need to be retested for Covid-19?

What is the Government’s alternative plan for testing and retesting staff members and pupils?

The Bermuda Union of Teachers called on the Education Emergency Measures Committee to meet as soon as possible and appealed for a rethink of the plan to reopen schools to take account of the profession’s expert advice. Has this happened and what was the result?

Why are schools being informed about the plans so late?

Will children who got a negative PCR test last weekend need a new one to return to school?

Are all pupils who are not in school receiving remote learning?

The Ministry of Education said that communications around pay deductions raised by the BUT would be investigated. Has this happened and if so what was the outcome?

The primary schoolteacher said that pupils had already missed out on lessons.

She added: “Students are not showing up because they don’t have their test results back therefore there will be a gap in their learning. The Government never mentioned anything about remote learning.

“No home study packages have been sent out to any pupils at this school. The teachers are responsible for preparing the packages.

“We would have prepared them if we knew we would be working remotely.”

A staff member at a middle school, who also asked not to be identified, agreed that public schools should move to the antigen tests.

The staff member said: “The private schools used antigen tests, businesses use antigen tests, they are used in some countries for travel but our Government wants to use just PCR for public schools. It doesn’t make sense.”

Warwick Academy, a private school, has been using antigen tests, also called lateral flow tests, since last October.

The system relies on self-administered tests where the results are uploaded to a special website.

Jane Vickers, the director of development at Warwick Academy, said: “It has been working well for us.”

She added: “Lateral flow tests are catching any positive cases before they come into school so that is preventing an outbreak at school.

“The Department of Health changed the definition of a close and casual contact which has helped reduce the number of teachers sent into quarantine, keeping us open.”

Ms Vickers said: “We haven’t been in remote learning since the introduction of the lateral flow tests.”

If a pupil at the school tests positive they must get a clear PCR test before they return.

The Government has pushed the use of antigen tests as part of the fight against the coronavirus.

The parent of a child at East End Primary School in St George’s said the public school has implemented its own remote learning schedule to avoid gaps in learning.

She added: “East End Primary only missed Thursday and had Zoom set up anyway – we can set up a remote learning schedule on the day. The department has issued laptops to the students.”

The Department of Youth Culture and Sport announced that after school programmes and clubs were to restart yesterday.

A spokeswoman said the department was “committed to providing the safest environment with programme workers participating in precautionary antigen testing twice weekly”.

She did not specify if the after school workers had to have a clear PCR test result to carry out their duties and did not provide an answer by press time.

The education ministry said it expected primary school pupils to be re-tested tomorrow and Thursday.

Tinee Furbert, the acting minister of education, said: “We have come up with a testing schedule which will allow our students who need to be re-tested to be back into the classroom as soon as possible.

“We are trying our best to make accommodations for testing result delays by providing a quicker method with the certified antigen tests. We thank everyone for their patience.”

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Published January 11, 2022 at 8:07 am (Updated January 11, 2022 at 10:21 am)

Fast coronavirus antigen tests to be piloted in public schools

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