School districts struggle to establish COVID-19 testing, frustrating parents

Some 925,000 children have become infected since school began this fall.

September 27, 2021, 5:01 AM

Angela McCray left her job as a pharmacist to homeschool her three children as pandemic lockdowns closed public schools in Monroe, North Carolina. So when public schools in the region announced reopening plans, she was excited to return her daughter for in-class instruction.

But McCray became concerned when her school district -- Union County Public Schools -- didn’t announce any official plans to test students or even require masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

"I was being patient knowing that they would see the numbers increase and would change their mind," she said.

That never happened.

In fact, the school district decided to roll back its quarantine and contract-tracing requirements for students with positive cases, citing the need to ease the workload of school staff.

It was a move that shocked and angered parents.

"As a pharmacist, as a mother, I couldn’t stand by and continue to watch that happen," McCray said. "We had to start getting action in place to figure out how we can push our elected officials to step in and make some changes."

The district only reversed course on its quarantine requirements when the state threatened to sue. But it still has no plans to offer COVID-19 testing to students or to require masks, despite both being recommended by public health officials.

"Testing is not offered by the school system, and it is offered within the county," said Tahira Stalberte, assistant superintendent for communications and community relations at Union County Public Schools. "If anyone wants a test, they can call our local health department and they can get them a test."

Six months after President Joe Biden offered states $10 billion so schools could routinely test students and staff to prevent asymptomatic cases, the school year is being hindered by the virus.

Some 925,000 children have become infected since school began this fall, according to data collected by the American Academy of Pediatrics, a staggering spike that has pushed many more kids into quarantine.

Some states have rejected their share of the $10 billion in federal funds for COVID-19 testing in schools while others have been painfully slow in actually implementing virus mitigation plans.

A survey of the nation’s 100 largest school districts from the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that less than 15% of those schools are utilizing federal funding dollars to establish COVID-19 in-school screening programs.

Pre-K teacher Vera Csizmadia teaches 3- and 4-year-old students in her classroom at the Dr. Charles Smith Early Childhood Center, Sept. 16, 2021, in Palisades Park, N.J.
Mary Altaffer/AP

A spokesperson for the Health and Human Services Department said the federal government has disbursed the funds. But when it comes to the utilization of those dollars, it’s up to the states to distribute the money to those that need it, including school districts.

The options for school districts range from working with the state government to stand up a screening program, outsourcing the testing and screening process to a third party vendor, or completely overseeing the student testing process themselves, which many school administrators -- particularly in smaller districts -- have described as an impossible task without additional support.

The challenges in implementing steady in-school testing and mitigation strategies have been particularly acute in the South and Midwest.

Texas has reported more than 125,000 positive COVID-19 cases in the first month since schools in the state reopened. Now with the spike in student caseloads, many Texas school districts are rethinking their testing strategies in the hopes that immediate changes will keep schools open and curb spread of the virus.

After two teachers working in the Connally Independent School District -- serving the Waco, Texas area -- died from coronavirus-related complications, masks were mandated for every student and staff member. The requirement placed the school district in direct opposition to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who signed legislation banning mask mandates.

"With the loss of two beloved teachers, we know that concerns for physical and mental health are heightened," said Wesley Holt, Connally ISD superintendent, in a memo to parents. "We want to assure you that we are focused on measures to take care of our students and staff."

As matters like testing and mask-wearing remain fraught, highly politicized issues, school districts that find themselves in disagreement with their governors on these matters have had to adopt a go-it-alone approach.

Iowa’s Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds rejected $95 million in federal funds offered to the state for in-school coronavirus testing, complicating matters for school districts urgently looking for funding to establish testing.

"There is confusion about funds Iowa had available last year for testing and contact tracing supposedly being returned before school districts knew they were available," said Phillip Roeder, a Des Moines Public Schools spokesperson, of the state’s returned federal COVID-19 testing dollars.

In one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, Fairfax County in northern Virginia, officials have been slow to establish any kind of formal testing regimen for students and staff.

"We are exploring a public-private partnership to offer testing and vaccinations across schools and expect to have more soon," said a Fairfax County Public Schools spokesperson in a statement. "Our current layered mitigation strategy has meant that less than 0.2 % of our in-school student and staff population has been quarantined due to a COVID exposure."

Some school districts that have been slow to implement systematic testing have found themselves in the difficult position of choosing between overseeing the logistics of managing a COVID-19 screening programs at the beginning of a new school year or involving third-party vendors to manage them.

"In many states, there are a number of different testing vendors they [schools] can choose from," said Leah Perkinson, manager of the pandemics division at the Rockefeller Foundation. "One of the most unfortunate parts about all of this is that there is a ton of guidance out there, but there’s just not a lot of awareness about what the choices are."

A girl passes a "Welcome Back to School" sign as she arrives for the first day of class at Brooklyn's PS 245 elementary school in New York, Sept. 13, 2021.
Mark Lennihan/AP, FILE

The New Orleans Public School system utilizes a testing program through the Louisiana Department of Health, in which students and their families can go to more than 91 school-based sites to get free routine COVID-19 PCR tests and receive results in under 24 hours.

The school district, which serves over 44,000 students, gives schools the choice of opting into the testing program, but some schools within the district have decided it’s more appropriate to mandate testing. Overall, New Orleans school officials say participation in the testing program has shown promise, especially given an unnaturally busy hurricane season.

"We believe that following Hurricane Ida, it has actually boosted participation," said Morgan Ripski, COVID-19 testing coordinator for New Orleans Public Schools. "The vast majority of our schools were not yet reopened, but what they did was open their sites as testing centers so students and parents could get tested before returning to the classroom."

In the first few days after Hurricane Ida hit, more than 13,500 students were tested through the New Orleans Public School’s testing program in partnership with the Louisiana Department of Health. The COVID-19 positivity rate was 1%.

For parents who learn their child has been exposed to COVID-19 in a school district like Union County Public Schools that has no testing protocols, the fear of what might happen next is all-consuming.

Kenan Medlin’s son is immunocompromised and she was worried for days when she learned he was exposed to another student with COVID-19. Her son’s recovery from respiratory illnesses typically takes longer than for other children.

Medlin decided to pull her son out of class and homeschool him until the school district requires masks and offers testing.

"You should be able to go to public school and know that your child is going to be safe, cared for, and that the school will do everything they can to protect your children, but they’re just not doing that," she said. "This is backing parents into a lot of corners and putting them in impossible situations."

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