New federal coronavirus guidance does not recommend universal testing of all students and staff in K-12 schools, an idea that has been floated as educators and policymakers seek ways to safely return students to their classrooms after extended building shutdowns.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations suggest testing efforts for K-12 students should focus on those with symptoms of the virus and those who may have had exposure to infected individuals.
Universal testing may be logistically challenging and disruptive, creating concerns about issues like resources, parental consent, and student privacy, says the guidance, which was released Wednesday evening.
“Universal SARS-CoV-2 testing of all students and staff in school settings has not been systematically studied,” the CDC says. “It is not known if testing in school settings provides any additional reduction in person-to-person transmission of the virus beyond what would be expected with implementation of other infection preventive measures (e.g., social distancing, cloth face covering, hand washing, enhanced cleaning and disinfecting). Therefore, CDC does not recommend universal testing of all students and staff.”
Federal public health officials have said in congressional hearings that increasing access to testing for the general public will be necessary to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as the country reopens schools and businesses. Broader testing efforts may help address one concern: Many infected individuals do not initially show symptoms of the virus, and some never will, which means they can unknowingly spread it.
“All roads back to work and school lead through testing,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, said at a May meeting. He suggested a college president or a middle school principal may want to test all students and staff to aid reopening.
But the CDC recommendations call for a more-targeted approach for most K-12 schools. And they say that school staff should not be expected to directly administer the tests, referring students and staff to outside health providers, or school-based clinics if they have the capability to conduct testing.
“In some circumstances, school-based health-care providers (e.g., school nurses, physicians) may conduct SARS-CoV-2 testing in their capacity as health-care providers, such as in school-based health centers,” the CDC says. “Not every school-based health-care provider will have the resources or training to conduct testing, and accordingly, should not feel compelled to do so; these providers can help link students and their families and staff to other opportunities for testing in the community.”
Testing plans should be created in consultation with local health officials, the agency says. And they should be part of a “comprehensive strategy” that includes “promoting behaviors that reduce spread, maintaining healthy environments, maintaining healthy operations, and preparing for when someone gets sick.”
Many school districts, following guidance from their states, have already said they will regularly screen students for COVID-19 symptoms, even taking their temperature to check for fevers before they enter buses or buildings. That sort of screening is “one of many different tools” schools can use to lower risk, but it won’t catch asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic cases, the CDC says.
When students or staff show symptoms, schools should immediately isolate them until they can return home or to a health-care provider, the guidance says. And schools should work with local health officials to trace contacts and determine who should be referred for testing.
Photo: A CDC laboratory test kit for the new coronavirus. --CDC via AP, File