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HARRISBURG – Even after COVID-19 cases increased in children and district leaders worked to contain outbreaks among students, schools in Pennsylvania were slow to move to a Wolf administration program of multi-million dollar offering free weekly tests.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, only 396 schools registered between mid-August and September 30. That’s over 5,000 charter schools, private and public across the state.
In that total, 60 of Pennsylvania’s 500 public school districts are represented – up from just September 30 to 14. Districts of Philadelphia and several of its pass counties participate in a separate testing program.
Wolf’s administration and school officials put forward various reasons for the lack of participation, including fear of finding too many cases and simply being too overwhelmed by a chaotic start to the school year.
“Any reluctance on the part of schools may be due to the fact that we must continue to educate them on their availability,” Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said at a recent press conference. “And of course we have tried, ad nauseam, to make sure schools are aware of this.”
After schools were abruptly closed in March 2020, most students in Pennsylvania spent the months after the apprenticeship, at least part-time, at home. Numerous studies have shown that students across the country have fallen behind in reading and math because of the pandemic, with those attending low-income schools experiencing bigger setbacks in test scores compared to their peers richer.
This year, the priority was to reopen the schools and make up for the precious time lost in class. But a return to in-person learning has brought its own challenges, made worse by the implementation of a statewide mask mandate released days after the new academic year.
According to Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, leaders have devoted “considerable time and energy” to navigation.
Schools statewide have also faced sudden outbreaks of COVID-19, he said, and the responsibility for contact tracing – the process of informing people who may have been exposed to a person infected with the coronavirus – also fell to school staff.
Testing can be a useful tool, but it is also an additional logistical hurdle to deal with.
“I can understand very easily how this would have been put on the back burner,” said DiRocco.
The state Department of Health in July hired Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks to administer the testing program. Even though the number of cases was relatively low at the time, Beam told lawmakers the testing program was essential in preventing outbreaks in schools.
The agency estimated that the federally-funded, one-year program would cost $ 87 million, although that number may change depending on the number of participating schools, a spokesperson said. from the Ministry of Health.
Students and teachers who choose to participate are typically tested weekly. Each person swabs their own nostril and the samples from each class are mixed in a process called “pooling”. The results are returned within one to two days and show whether the virus is present among that group of people. If the result is negative, it is unlikely that anyone in this group is sick. If the pooled test is positive, it is possible that someone in that group has COVID-19.
From there, school leaders can decide whether to recommend additional testing or quarantine.
Getting students back to class was the priority for many schools in Pennsylvania that Ginkgo encountered when the program was introduced in late August, said Karen Hogan, program manager.
Some school leaders have expressed concern that if they start testing they will find more cases of COVID-19 than they expected and will be forced to take additional mitigation measures, such as closing schools.
But that’s not what the data shows, Hogan said. In fact, many districts are reporting lower infection rates than expected, and this helps show that the mitigation strategies they adopt are working.
“One of the most important things is that the granular level of data that you can get in a school community is going to be very important in helping us understand, over time, how we can relax mitigation strategies,” Hogan said.
The state Department of Health will not release a list of districts or schools participating in Spotlight PA, but a spokesperson said the information would eventually be posted on the ministry’s website.
Spotlight PA has independently identified public schools in Pittsburgh, the second largest district in the state with approximately 21,400 students, as one of the districts participating in the program. On-site testing for unvaccinated staff was scheduled to begin the week of September 26, and plans for student testing will be announced once they are completed, a district spokesperson said.
The Mount Lebanon School District, which is in the southern suburbs of Pittsburgh and has about 5,300 students, is also participating, according to a spokesperson. So far, around 12% of the total student and staff population have signed up to participate in the first round of testing, which was scheduled to begin the week of October 3.
Outside of the state program, many districts in southeastern Pennsylvania have partnered with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab to participate in Project ACE-IT, a free, school-based testing program that was developed in last fall and launched in January.
The Philadelphia School District, the largest district in the state with approximately 124,000 students, uses the ACE-IT project to run several school-based testing programs, including mandatory testing for students participating in sports groups contact or performing arts, such as an orchestra and choir.
In Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties, 43 school districts – along with several technical schools, middle schools and private schools – are also using the ACE-IT project, said director of implementation Maggie Eisen.
Eisen didn’t expect much interest in the program this fall. But, as many schools have faced unexpected outbreaks fueled by the highly contagious delta variant, more people have signed up to participate.
“It’s been really, really busy over the last month with people wanting to be up and running by the eleventh hour,” she said.
From August 26 to September 1 – the first or second week of the school year for many districts – 4,043 cases have been reported statewide in school-aged children aged 5 to 18, data shows of State. Since then, the number of new cases has increased week-over-week, reaching 7,352 new cases reported from September 22 to 28.
There are over two million students enrolled in public and private schools in Pennsylvania.
It’s difficult to use data from the past to predict how the virus will spread in schools, said Abby Rudolph, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Temple University. Last year, schools were closed, vaccines were not available, and the delta variant had not yet emerged.
Any amount of testing in schools could help monitor the effectiveness of efforts like masking and distancing, she said, and detect outbreaks before they become mainstream.
“In order to be able to operate in person, which they weren’t doing to the same extent last year, you need that extra safety precaution to just control things and make sure they don’t go unnoticed,” Rudolph said. .
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