At EastSide Charter, students and staff get weekly COVID-19 tests. Should other schools do the same?
“Good morning, everybody has their tests?” Dottie Lennon asks a class of second graders.
“Yes,” the group responds.
Lennon walks the 7-year-olds through the now-familiar steps.
Four good coughs into your mask.
Take out the cotton swab, careful not to let the white end touch anything.
Masks down, now swab around your mouth.
The school nurse at EastSide Charter in Wilmington, Lennon has been facilitating schoolwide testing of students and staff every week since the start of the school year.
Working with the Delaware Emergency Management Agency and New Castle County, the testing program at EastSide is a pilot that could be expanded to other schools. Already, Lennon has been in communication with other nurses throughout the state.
“Testing every week keeps everybody aware of what’s going on, and it makes you more cautious,” Lennon said. “We have explained to all the kids why they need to do this, and they have been very receptive.”
As cases of COVID-19 continue to climb nationally, Gov. John Carney has said the state’s priority is to keep schools open as long as possible. But whether schools can stay open depends on how well the state can limit community spread of the virus.
Could more widespread and regular testing of Delaware students be the answer to managing that? Some parents and educator advocates think so.
S.A.F.E. Schools, a coalition of education advocates, is calling on the state to require regular COVID-19 testing in every school as a way of tracking and controlling the spread of coronavirus in the community.
Most schools in the state have transitioned to hybrid learning, and some have tentative plans to welcome more students to classrooms after the holidays.
Nationally and in the state, public health officials and a growing body of research note that in schools where mitigation efforts like mask-wearing and social distancing are followed, there is little evidence of spread within schools, particularly among elementary students.
At a press briefing earlier this month, Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health, said health officials have tracked only five incidents of school-related spread, with all other cases being connected to activities in the outside community.
But more robust testing would offer more data – and a better picture of what the virus looks like among children and in schools, said Rebecca Haffajee, health policy researcher at the RAND Corp., a nonpartisan public policy think tank.
“For the most part, public school systems don’t have the funds to do that widespread testing,” Haffajee said. “Therefore, we really don’t have a great idea of how many kids are asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms and are still in schools. If we knew that, then we could actually say something about how prevalent it is in schools and then how much it’s being spread.”
As of Nov. 12, 360 students and staff in Delaware public and private schools had tested positive for COVID-19 since Sept. 1, according to public health officials. And while schools themselves might not be seeing internal spread, community spread is still affecting students’ daily lives.
In recent weeks, two Red Clay schools closed temporarily due to key staff members needing to quarantine. Colonial School District shifted to virtual learning to control spread after multiple staff members tested positive. And in Laurel School District, one student’s positive test resulted in 48 individuals being exposed, leading to a temporary district closure.
“At some point, when it gets above a certain threshold and it’s so widespread in the community, it is likely to start to enter schools and force these kinds of closures, whether it’s more permanent or temporary related to a specific outbreak,” Haffajee said.
At EastSide, community spread caught up to the school earlier this month, when one student tested positive.
Catching asymptomatic cases like that is why the school decided to require testing, said Aaron Bass, CEO of the school. It’s a sign that the system is working, he said.
“The whole goal of testing is to point those people out so they don’t become the spreaders,” Lennon said. “Whereas if we weren’t testing and we didn’t know, those individuals would be out spreading unaware that they’re doing any damage. And those people that they’re spreading it to could be taking it to other people.”
Every week, Lennon registers all students and staff into the state's testing system, similar to if someone were registering for any other Delaware test site. Then, she delivers the completed Curative kits to a state site for processing.
Results are sent directly to parents, who then inform the school if their child is positive or negative each week.
Weekly testing isn’t without challenges. Beyond financial resources, schools would need people to do the testing.
At EastSide, Lennon oversees about 100 tests weekly, which will nearly double when more students come to campus in December. But at larger public schools, it could be too much for one school nurse to handle.
Implementing mandatory teacher testing would likely require the approval of teacher’s unions in each district. And not every parent is willing to have their child tested regularly either.
Joseph Jones, superintendent of New Castle County Vo-Tech, said that in order for schoolwide testing to be effective, it would need to be consistent across every district, to ensure that siblings in different schools were all getting tested.
“There are challenges to making it mandatory, but we’re encouraging everybody to go get tested. It’s the best way to track the spread,” said Jonathan Starkey, spokesman for the governor’s office. “I think there’s been a significant amount done for school testing.”
Before the school year started and again when more districts shifted to hybrid, the state began offering testing sites at schools in an effort to test as many kids as possible. Testing isn’t mandated for teachers, but most get tested regularly on their own, whether it’s through in-person sites or the state’s mail-in testing, Starkey said.
Recently, the state announced a partnership with pediatric care providers to increase access to COVID-19 tests for children.
But having access to tests in schools would particularly benefit low-income students whose parents might not have the time or resources to take them to a testing site regularly, said Sarah Green, co-chair of S.A.F.E. Schools.
Students in high-needs schools are already more likely to be affected by the exacerbated inequities brought on by the pandemic, she said. Regular testing could limit school closures, meaning those kids get as consistent of an education as possible.
“There’s a real disconnect where they don’t understand what it’s like to be a family with two working parents who don’t have a car and can’t go to Frawley Stadium whenever they want,” Green said.
At the moment, the state is unlikely to mandate in-school testing. But school districts and charters like EastSide can implement stricter student requirements.
“They insist that they’re doing enough. We’re pushing for a more proactive approach for the more vulnerable populations of students,” Green said. “The most equitable thing to do is to provide it where people are.”
Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2312 or email@example.com.