North Carolina school districts could begin regular COVID-19 testing of some adults and students as a way to monitor the spread of the coronavirus in their communities.
State Department of Health and Human Services officials on Thursday laid out COVID-19 testing strategies that school districts could use on either a one time or recurring basis. The options come as more public school students make the transition from online-only classes to full-time or partial in-person instruction.
“If a district is interested or able to pursue a broader testing strategy in order to mitigate the spread of COVID on their campus or in their community, a school could absolutely consider that,” Rebecca Planchard, senior policy advisor at DHHS, told the State Board of Education on Thursday.
DHHS will release guidance on school testing strategies now that local health departments are getting increased access to antigen tests for COVID-19 testing. Planchard said local health officials may want to consider giving priority to testing schools, especially if there’s been a confirmed cluster of cases.
Concerns about COVID-19 in schools have increased since a Stanly County elementary school teacher died Sunday from the disease. Before she died, the teacher said she had gotten COVID-19 from a student, but the school district says that’s not the case, The Charlotte Observer previously reported.
There are 126 COVID-19 confirmed cases associated with 15 active K-12 clusters, according to DHHS. A cluster is when there are five or more cases associated with a school.
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COVID-19 testing strategies for schools
A school district may want to test every adult and child who was physically at the school when a cluster was active, Planchard said.
DHHS also laid out potential strategies for repeated testing if a district is providing in-person instruction or is in a county that’s in a red, yellow or orange zone for COVID levels. Health officials say those districts could test a sample of adults and/or children, such as 5% of population. The testing could be done on a regular basis, such as weekly or monthly.
Testing adults may be more effective, as current data shows they may spread the virus more than children, according to DHHS.
Another option is to require a one-time COVID-19 test for all students and adults before they’re allowed for in-person schooling. But Planchard said this option isn’t recommended because it would create barriers to learning.
Planchard also said universal one-time testing could create logistical challenges for schools and may not be effective at controlling the spread of the coronavirus.
School districts are increasingly moving toward resuming in-person instruction, especially since Gov. Roy Cooper has allowed elementary schools to reopen for full-time, daily instruction. Middle schools and high schools are still subject to state rules limiting the number of students who can be on campus to maintain social distancing.
State board vice chairman Alan Duncan asked Thursday what metrics should be used for reopening schools. Susan Gale Perry, DHHS chief deputy secretary, answered that schools should use a combination of metrics and not rely on a single number.
“There’s not a magic number or a magic silver bullet here,” Perry said. “It is a combination of indicators and the mitigation protocols that districts really need to be considering when they’re thinking about how to get children back in the classroom and staff back in the classroom and promote the best learning.”