Ideally we’d have a governor and health department director that support evidence-based interventions to prevent COVID-19 infections in K-12 schools while maximizing the chance for in-person instruction by supporting CDC’s Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools.
Sadly, that’s not the deck that Arizona voters dealt us. We’ve been dealt a hand that includes a governor who is actively hostile toward universal indoor K-12 masking and a health director unwilling to push back.
That doesn’t mean schools are helpless. Identifying COVID cases early and removing infected kids and their unvaccinated close contacts can prevent cascades of classroom cases and improve the chances for in-person school.
A key to making that happen is school-based testing. Fortunately, classroom COVID testing will be much easier this fall because of the American Rescue Plan Act. Arizona received $219M CDC to pay for voluntary COVID-19 testing in schools at no cost to schools.
These federal funds allow schools to do both diagnostic testing of symptomatic kids and staff and surveillance screening testing to help schools identify infected individuals without symptoms so they can take action to prevent further transmission.
Thanks to the Rescue Plan Act schools can implement routine ‘pooled testing’ of asymptomatic kids for free, including administrative and technical support.
Here’s how it works. The free technical support team comes to the school and coordinates the sampling. Samples from multiple students in the same classroom are combined and taken to a Sonora Quest Lab’s main facility in Phoenix. The pooled specimen is analyzed the same day as collection (using PCR). Results are available in less than 24 hours. If the test is negative, all students in the pool are presumed negative and no further action is necessary.
If the pooled test is positive, students in the positive pool are tested the next morning using the BinaxNOW 15-minute antigen test to determine which student is positive.
The biggest “game-changer” for schools that use pooled testing is that the program provides free technical and administrative on-site support to minimize the burden on staff. Healthcare providers manage all collection and logistical activities on all testing days taking the burden off school staff.
It’s all 100% federally funded making it reasonable for any district or school to implement. Of course, the program is voluntary both for schools and for parents and kids participate only if their parent provides consent.
Last semester, schools generally needed to partner with a community lab that is CLIA certified to do on-site rapid testing. The availability of the new Over-the-Counter BinaxNOW Rapid COVID-19 Test means that schools will no longer need to partner with a lab. On top of that, the Rescue Plan Act provides more than enough CDC money for the state and counties to buy the test kits and for schools to use them routinely for screening.
Arizona’s county health departments have been buying the BinaxNOW at-home testing kits and making them available to schools. Schools can ask their county health department for free test kits. Most counties (including Maricopa) have the BinaxNOW kits. In Maricopa County, schools can order these test kits through their School Resource Request Tool.
Schools can use the kits in ways they prefer. They could have tests available in the nurses or administrative offices and could do on-site testing (with parental consent of course). Alternatively, they can just send a kid home with the rapid test kit in their backpack and ask the parent to do the test at home. Results come in about 15 minutes.
Here is a comprehensive PowerPoint explaining the importance of school based testing: TFS Assets for APHA – Dropbox
Even though our governor is actively hostile toward universal indoor K-12 masking, schools still have tools to prevent classroom infections. Routine testing to identify COVID cases and removing infected kids and their unvaccinated close contacts can prevent cascades of classroom cases and improve the chances for in-person school.
Thanks to the Rescue Plan Act, schools can implement free routine testing in classrooms this fall. They can use a pooled testing approach (which comes with free administrative and technical support) or use rapid tests. Both approaches are free, and provide critical information that schools can use to keep kids safer this fall and minimize cascading cases that result in unnecessary distance learning.
Make sure to ask your school principal what their testing plan is. If they don’t have a testing plan, send them to this blog post to get them started!