School Climate & Safety

Testing All Students and Staff for COVID-19. The Key to Full Opening of All Schools?

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 15, 2020 4 min read
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Is COVID-19 testing going to be a requirement for teachers—and students—to return to school? That’s how things are shaping up in some of the United States’ most populous school districts.

Los Angeles, home to the nation’s second-largest school district, is moving forward with an ambitious plan to test all staff members working in person at its schools and their children, and to conduct contact-tracing for any positive results. Last week, it conducted more than 5,000 COVID-19 tests of some of its essential workers and their children—some of whom began attending childcare programs in about 300 city schools this week.

And that isn’t all; in order to return to in-person schooling, all staff and students will need to be tested. After that, L.A. plans to move to “periodic” testing based on research models developed by several universities. It will also provide tests for family members of students or staff who test positive, or show symptoms of COVID-19. It anticipates administering up to 40,000 of these randomized tests a day. (For context, L.A. has more than 450,000 students and about 75,000 employees.)

According to The Los Angeles Times, the district will make some of that information available on a website, which will allow parents and the public to see the number of cases by school, grade level, and student “cohort,” or the small group each student will be placed in and move through their schools with.

The testing program involves the district, the University of California Los Angeles, Stanford University, The Johns Hopkins University, Microsoft, two testing providers, Anthem Blue Cross, Cedars-Sinai, and Health Net.

“This program will provide the foundation for students and teachers to return to school in the safest possible manner, and it will help keep students in school because we can identify and isolate cases before more people are exposed to the virus,” Superintendent Austin Beutner said in a statement.

This is potentially a harbinger of things to come as more districts consider safety—and just as importantly, how to build confidence in that safety among parents and teachers,

The nation’s largest districts are, by and large, in the same situation as Los Angeles. According to the most recent Education Week data, nearly three-quarters of the 100 largest districts are choosing remote learning to kick off the school year. (Remember, though, that the average school district is much, much smaller. There are literally thousands of districts, especially in states with lower transmission rates or more aggressive opening timelines, that have chosen to begin in-person learning.)

Per state health guidelnes, Los Angeles students will not return to in-person attendance until the COVID-19 daily case rate in the city falls below 25 cases per 100,000 residents, and case positivity rates are no greater than 8.0%. (Los Angeles County was at 463 daily cases as of Sept. 12.)

The full cost of the Los Angeles program is unclear, the L.A. Times noted. And in the absence of a coherent federal or statewide plan for testing, it has largely been up to districts to cobble together the funding and logistics for these types of programs.

An illustrative counter-example is in the more than 1 million-student New York City district.

The city is providing free priority testing for all students and education employees throughout the city. As part of its back to school plans, the city will conduct mandatory random testing of up to 10 percent of students and teachers beginning Oct 1. It will not, however, test all students or employees before the first day of schools, on Sept. 21.

So far, most of the city’s tests have yielded very small positive results—and New York now has one of the lowest daily case rates in the country. But ongoing disagreements with the United Federation of Teachers over safety protocols and delayed contact tracing mean the details of testing and tracing will continue to evolve.

What makes all of this so complicated is balancing safety needs against educational ones. Research shows that online learning tends to be less effective than in-person learning, which is one reason why some advocates support efforts to get students back to in-person schooling as quickly as possible. The director of UNICEF, the international child-support agency, for example, recently noted that at least one in four countries it studied didn’t have a date in place for returning students to the classroom.

“We know that closing schools for prolonged periods of time can have devastating consequences for children,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said at a press conference today. “They become more exposed to physical and emotional violence. Their mental health is affected. They are more vulnerable to child labor and sexual abuse, and are less likely to break out of the cycle of poverty.”

Photo: In this July 2020 file photo, a woman and girl take a coronavirus test together in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Unified School District is embarking on a large-scale testing of staff and students. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.