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HomeCovid-19School Districts’ Challenge In Establishing COVID-19 Testing Frustrates Parents

School Districts’ Challenge In Establishing COVID-19 Testing Frustrates Parents

Angela McCray resigned from being a pharmacist so she can homeschool her three children as the public schools in Monroe, North Carolina closed due to the pandemic lockdowns. When public schools in the state revealed their plans to reopen, she was excited for her daughter to return to in-class instruction.

However, McCray started to worry when her school district — Union County Public Schools — didn’t give any official plans for testing students or masking mandates to lessen COVID-19 spread.

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

But it didn’t happen.

Instead, the school district went back to its quarantine and contract-tracing requirements for students with positive cases, in order to ease the school staff’s workload.

Many parents were shocked and angered with this move..

“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.”

Only when the state threatened to file charges, the district decided to reverse course on its quarantine requirements. However there are still no definite plans to test students of COVID-19 t or to require masks, even if the public officials have recommended both.

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

The school year is still being hampered by the virus, even six months after President Joe Biden offered states $10 billion for routine tests of schools to students and staff to determine asymptomatic cases.

Since the start of school this fall, some 925,000 children have become infected, according to data collected by the American Academy of Pediatrics, an astonishing increase that has forced quarantine on many more children.

Some states have not accepted their share of the $10 billion in federal funds for COVID-19 testing in schools while others have been lagging in the implementation of plans to prevent the spread of the virus.

Only less than 15% of the schools are using federal funding dollars in creating COVID-19 in-school testing programs, according to a  survey of the nation’s 100 largest school districts from the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

The federal government has paid out the funds, according to a spokesperson for the Health and Human Services Department. However, the usage and distribution of these funds, including the schools, depending on the state. 

The school districts can choose to either do a screening program, outsource the testing and screening process to a third party vendor, or completely oversee the student testing process themselves, which many school leaders — particularly in smaller districts — have mentioned being a daunting task without added support.

The struggles surrounding the implementation of stable in-school testing and mitigation strategies have been specifically acute in the South and Midwest.

Since the reopening of schools, Texas has reported more than 125,000 positive COVID-19 cases in the first month. Now with the increase in student caseloads, several school districts in Texas are considering their testing techniques hoping that quick changes will keep schools open and mitigate the virus spread.

After the death of two teachers working in the Connally Independent School District — serving the Waco, Texas area due to coronavirus-related complications. Masks mandates were implemented for every student and staff member. This regulation placed the school district in direct opposition to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who signed a law prohibiting enforcing mask mandates.

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

Since topics relating to testing and mask-wearing continue to be debated and highly politicized issues, school districts that find themselves in an opposing position against their governors on these matters have had to take on a go-it-alone method.

Iowa’s Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds refused to accept the $95 million federal funds given to the state for in-school coronavirus testing, making matters difficult for school districts pressingly searching for money for testing.

According to Phillip Roeder, a Des Moines Public Schools spokesperson,  “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.” 

Fairfax County, one of the nation’s wealthiest counties in northern Virginia, leaders have been lagging in establishing any kind of formal testing strategy 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.”

The school districts that have not acted fast in enforcing systematic testing have brought themselves in the difficult stand of selecting between leading the logistics of managing COVID-19 testing programs at the start of a new school year or getting third-party vendors to handle them.

Leah Perkinson, manager of the pandemics division at the Rockefeller Foundation said, “in many states, there are a number of different testing vendors they [schools] can choose from. 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.”

In New Orleans, the public school system uses a testing program in collaboration with the Louisiana Department of Health. The strategy allows the students and their families to go to more than 91 school-based sites and get free routine COVID-19 PCR tests that give results in under 24 hours.

The school district serving over 44,000 students provides schools the option of joining the testing program. However, some schools within the district are firm that it’s more suitable to mandate testing. In general, the participation in the testing program has been promising, according to the New Orleans school leaders, despite the fact they are in 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.”

More than 13,500 students were tested through the combined testing program of New Orleans Public Schools and the Louisiana Department of Health during the first few days after Hurricane Ida hit the region. The COVID-19 positivity rate was 1%.

In school districts without no testing protocols, like Union County Public Schools,  the fear of what might happen next to parents who find out about their child’s COVID-19 exposure can be daunting and all-consuming.

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Kenan Medlin’s son is immunocompromised and she has been concerned when she found out that he was exposed to a COVID-19-positive student. Her son typically takes a longer time to recover from respiratory diseases compared to other kids.

Medlin decided to take her son out of class and homeschool him until testing and wearing masks will be mandated by the school district.  

“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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