Principals smell a RAT in the ministry’s test promise
Rapid antigen tests are essential to keep schools running smoothly, so why are they happening at such a slow pace?
As the country enters phase 3 and the main tools of the public health response shift from isolation and PCR tests to rapid antigen tests (RATs), schools are wondering why they have to wait two days to put the hand on tests that might enable them to keep their doors open.
As of Wednesday, RATs have been the main test at community testing centers across Auckland to help meet demand as the Omicron outbreak continues to grow.
With a faster turnaround time and cheaper cost – although less sensitive than PCR – RATs are a crucial tool for institutions like schools and prisons, where staff forced into self-isolation can have consequences disastrous on administrators trying to stay the course.
In bulletins released by the Ministry of Education this week, the ministry said there would be many more RATs used in schools once the country enters phase 3, with PCR tests kept for children. people who are sick or more susceptible to viruses.
Earlier this week, the ministry announced that 200,000 RATs had been received for distribution to schools, with 480,000 on their way within the week. Speaking from Porirua this morning, Education Minister Chris Hipkins said over 700,000 RATs had already been distributed to the Department of Education network, ready for distribution to schools.
Currently, RATs are available to schools meeting the requirements of the Close Contact Exemption Program – the emergency situation in which teachers must quickly test the antigen to exit close contact status so that the school continues to monitor the children.
For principals such as Vaughan Couillault of Papatoetoe High School, the promise of government-provided rapid tests for his school seems like little more than a promise.
Delays in delivering tests to schools and strict requirements on how desperate a school is before being eligible mean that the rollout of the RAT will only help schools in very specific situations.
“The way it’s currently set up is not easily accessible, it’s not fast and it’s not really going to help in many situations outside of early childhood education,” he said. he declares. “You pretty much have to hand over your firstborn to get one.”
Papatoetoe High School, like many schools in the Auckland area, has been hit hard by staff having to self-isolate, with almost a third of its teachers expected to stay home around the middle of this week .
A lack of access to rapid tests has forced the school to do rapid scheduling gymnastics, with full-year levels being asked to stay home on certain days.
Even so, the Department of Education has stressed that RATs should only be used as a last resort – likely due to their nature of only picking up higher viral loads.
“There is a risk of close contact returning to work with children, so consider carefully any use of rapid antigen tests for this purpose,” reads the ministry’s bulletin to schools.
Speaking on Friday morning, Hipkins doubled down on the message of last resort, saying the government wanted teachers to “stay home and reduce the risk to themselves and the students they work with. It would be just one absolute last resort if we had no one else who could go to schools to care for children who had nowhere to go for us to seek to use this testing program.”
He acknowledged the challenges of blended learning (some students learn at home and others in the classroom), but said schools had proven they were up to the task over the past two years.
“There’s going to be a bit of a twist,” he said. “We all need to be resilient and adaptable.”
The ministry suggests schools explore a range of options before applying for RATs, such as substitute teachers, unregistered teachers who hold limited authority to teach, rearrange classes and schedules, or arrange for staff non-teaching provides supervision of distance education.
“You can’t get [RATs] if you have no more humans on the ground to take care of the children who have no choice but to be in school,” Couillault said.
He wants to see more autonomy for school principals to deal with the situation themselves.
“Send me a box of them and let us get on with our work,” he said. “Stop messing with middlemen – or if you don’t have them, just say you don’t have them.”
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern refuted the idea that schools did not have their own autonomy to decide whether they wanted to use RATs.
“We now have the flexibility in the system for teachers if their school determines that it is necessary for them to be back in school despite close contact, they will have the option of bringing them back to school,” said she declared. “But we want schools to think about whether this is something they want to do, and they are in the best position to make that decision.”
It is indisputable that the Close Contact Exemption Scheme exists, and indeed schools will have to judge whether they meet the criteria and are eligible to receive their share of testing. However, will every school that says it needs a box of RATs get what they want?
National Education Party spokeswoman Erica Stanford questioned whether enough RATs were earmarked for schools in the first place.
“There are supposedly 200,000 rapid tests distributed in schools,” she said earlier this week. “With around 2,500 schools in New Zealand, this averages less than 80 tests per school. It is not enough for the 70,000 teachers and 800,000 students we have in this country.
She said Ardern’s assurances that schools would be able to make the decision to use RATs were misleading.
“She never really said it wasn’t for all teachers,” Stanford said. “It’s only for once that a school is practically closed and you have to open a few classes for students of essential workers who cannot be at home alone. She never really says that.
As things stand, schools will need to get in touch with their education coordinators and find out if they will be allowed to get enough RATs to keep classrooms open.
“Schools are upset and confused,” Stanford said. “They want to be able to test teachers to bring them back to school.”
She predicts the rules will change, allowing more teachers to get their hands on a RAT within weeks if stocks rise. This suggests that his theory is that the tightly controlled distribution of RATs in schools has more to do with a lack of supply than adherence to a strict security regime.
Hipkins almost promised the regime would relax once RAT stocks rise this morning, saying that as supply increases, schools could use more.
Whatever the reason for the current lockdowns, if it takes a school 48 hours to receive the tests, Couillault wonders if the “fast” epithet is still appropriate.
“Let’s just say I needed it to make sure six kids I have here are supervised,” he said. “It would take me 48 hours to get my hands on it.”
With nearly 50 secondary schools across Auckland reporting active cases within the student body and schools of all kinds across the country approaching 500, the ease with which they can obtain a box of RATs may decide how many are forced to close in the coming weeks.