A mother in Yellowknife says new Covid-19 screening guidelines are setting students up to miss school and especially challenging for children with disabilities.
Renee Sanderson and her family were among the 1,000 people that had to isolate in the city earlier this month due to a Covid-19 outbreak at NJ Macpherson School.
Sanderson’s two sons, aged nine and seven, are on the autism spectrum. Her eldest son requires significant support to regulate his emotions and process sensory input, she said, making invasive testing and the loss of routine, school supports, and respite care even more challenging.
“We struggled every day,” she told Cabin Radio, describing the isolation period as “horrible.”
“Not knowing what the next day was going to bring just added to the anxiety.”
During their isolation, both of Sanderson’s sons were required to receive tests for Covid-19, which proved difficult for her eldest son. After both Sanderson and a nurse were unable to take a nasopharyngeal or throat swab as her son had a “meltdown,” she said she made the decision to “stop traumatizing him” and not force him to get tested.
‘I don’t think I was asking for more than my kids deserved’
Sanderson said she contacted the office of the NWT’s chief public health officer seeking a testing exemption for her son. She recalled being told that if all other household members tested negative, they could end isolation.
When her family received negative test results, however, Sanderson said she was told that because her eldest son refused testing, the whole family had to isolate for a full 24 days.
“One of the things that was told to us is that ‘we can’t make an exception for you or else we would have to make an exception for everyone else,’” Sanderson said. “All I think I was looking for was some fairness, and some humane ways of testing our kids. I don’t think I was asking for more than my kids deserved.”
Sanderson said the impact of isolating for almost a month without being able to leave their home has been “catostrophic” for her family. She said her eldest son’s anxiety “skyrocketed” and he was “constantly in meltdown mode.”
Sanderson worries the new Covid-19 rules for students could mean they will have to repeat that experience.
In response to the school outbreak, territorial health officials released new Covid-19 screening guidance for students and school staff a week ago.
While staff and students previously had to remain home from school only if they had one major or two minor symptoms of Covid-19, they are now required to stay home and be assessed – and in some cases tested – if they have just one of a long list of symptoms, ranging from fever and shortness of breath to vomiting and runny nose.
“That’s just setting us up to not be able to bring out kids to school, having to isolate longer,” Sanderson said, noting her son has seasonal allergies.
Sanderson is looking at options to remain at home with her sons for the rest of the school year. She said there has been little support from the territorial government to do so.
She wants the territory to provide less invasive options for Covid-19 testing, like a mouth rinse and gargle test that’s available to children under the age of 18 in the Yukon.
“My boys deserve to be treated with respect and dignity,” she wrote in a letter to newsrooms earlier this week. “Surely across Canada there are other disabled individuals who also need flexible and humane ways of testing for Covid.”
Health officials ‘see benefits’ from rules
Dr Kami Kandola, the NWT’s chief public health officer, is currently out of the office and unavailable for comment, the territorial government said.
Her deputy, Dr Andy Delli Pizzi, told Cabin Radio the NJ Macpherson School outbreak required a “brisk response” to ensure students and staff are assessed for Covid-19.
In cases where someone is a direct contact of Covid-19 and declines testing, he said, they may be directed to isolate because of the high risk of transmission.
“Families that have been isolating have protected Yellowknife and they’ve protected surrounding communities, and they’ve protected the NWT,” he said. “We do see those benefits from our perspective. We know that it’s been protective.”
But Delli Pizzi said public health doesn’t want the new guidance to have the “unintended consequence” of keeping children out of school.
“We know that school is where children need to be, so we’re going to be monitoring closely from our perspective as well,” he said.
The Yellowknife school cluster is the biggest Covid-19 outbreak in the territory to date. It resulted in 71 residents testing positive for Covid-19 – most of whom were children – almost doubling the territory’s total case count since the pandemic began.
Isolation instructions for those identified as direct contacts of the school cluster were stricter than previous public health advice, with households told not to leave their properties even to walk their dogs or go for a drive.
Delli Pizzi, however, said letters were sent to families notifying them they could leave their properties for a couple of hours every day if they were able to do so safely without coming into contact with others.
“We know how hard it is for families to self-isolate,” he said. “It means people can’t do the things they need to do, whether that’s go to school, or work, or pursue recreational things. So there’s been such an impact.”
Regarding the impact of Covid-19 testing on children, Scott Robertson – Covid operations executive co-lead for the territory’s health and social services authority – told Cabin Radio he recognizes it’s “not fun for anyone to get a nasopharyngeal swab.” He said the territory also offers throat swabs as well as nasal swabs where a sample is taken from the entrance of both nostrils.
Robertson said the territory considered mouth rinse and gargle tests as an option late last year, but decided not to pursue them to focus on expanding testing capacity overall. He added the territory’s laboratory partner in Alberta “didn’t really buy into” the test.
“We are continuing to look into it as an option for people to have as a testing method,” he said, “but it’s not something that we are currently offering.”