In a switch from last school year, the state is planning to offer schools a weekly coronavirus testing program for unvaccinated, asymptomatic elementary school students and staff. New Haven — one of the largest school districts in Connecticut — announced plans Monday night to offer weekly testing at each of its schools.
School superintendents received a survey in late July from the state education and health departments to gauge interest in plans for a weekly coronavirus PCR testing program for unvaccinated children and staff in grades K-6, where students are largely too young to be eligible for the Pfizer COVID-19 shot. The survey came several weeks after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released back-to-school guidelines describing such screening programs as “an important layer of prevention, particularly in areas with substantial to high community transmission levels.”
While many colleges across the state utilized weekly testing strategies to catch asymptomatic coronavirus cases among students last school year, public grade schools did not — leading to monthslong disagreements between the Lamont administration and unions representing Connecticut educators. State officials maintained there was no evidence of disease spread within schools, while union leaders argued that not enough testing of asymptomatic students and staff was being done to confirm that stance.
In December 2020, the state announced plans to increase priority access to testing for school staff and child care workers, and Gov. Ned Lamont frequently discussed last year the importance of providing schools with access to rapid tests for students showing COVID-19 symptoms. However, Connecticut stopped short of recommending the widespread, regular testing of students and staff without symptoms.
Dr. Ulysses Wu, system director for infectious diseases at Hartford HealthCare, said the state’s new plan to offer weekly testing in grade schools is likely related to the presence of the delta variant.
“That is a game-changer because we have the possibility of a more infectious variant that is potentially going to affect our children,” he said, adding that testing is much more accessible now that it was at the start of the pandemic.
According to a fact sheet about the screening program, its costs will be covered by the state health department’s federal coronavirus relief funding, and the program may be extended to unvaccinated students and staff in grades 7-12 if the budget allows.
“Districts will not be selecting students to participate, rather testing will only be completed on students whose parents have signed and submitted a consent form,” state officials wrote. “Once signed, the consent form will cover testing throughout the year.”
Lower-nasal swabs will be collected and transported by testing partners, and results will be made available to school administrators, parents of tested students, and the state Department of Public Health within 24-48 hours. Each participating child will be tested every week of school, and if a positive case is identified, the lab will be responsible for retesting the existing swab.
Schools who participate in the program will be automatically paired with a testing partner, who will reach out to them to determine scheduling. The schools are responsible for promoting the programs among families and staff, collecting consent forms, designating a testing location in the school, and contact tracing with local health officials in the event of a positive case.
The state education and health departments said in the fact sheet that weekly testing reduces the risk of school-based transmission and can help catch cases earlier on, as well as decrease the number of times students and staff may have to quarantine during the school year.
Besides catching asymptomatic cases, weekly coronavirus testing programs may help families feel more secure in sending children back to school, Wu said. However, he also noted that frequent testing of a wider student population could result in elevated case numbers.
“The more cases you test, the more you’re going to unearth. [It’s] the proverbial: ‘Do you really want to look under the rug?’ ” he said. “I think it has always been the right thing to do to find these cases. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we found a lot more positives just because you’re looking for them.”
The state education and health departments did not immediately respond Tuesday to inquiries about the survey or its results.
New Haven made its announcement to provide weekly testing to students and staff during a Monday evening board of education meeting, the New Haven Independent first reported.
Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said she is aware of eight or nine school districts the state is currently working with to set up weekly testing, but she is unsure of whether more will do so before the start of the school year.
“Certainly districts have been talking about it, and in many cases going to their local departments of public health and talking to them about an outside partner,” she said. “There’s just so much going on for school districts.”
Copyright (c) 2021, Hartford Courant. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.