As coronavirus cases continue to surge, plans are underway to begin testing students and staff at some area public schools — efforts school leaders hope will make people feel safe in classrooms and guard against potential spread of the virus.
A program spearheaded by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that would introduce testing in school districts is in the works. Among the first to pilot it would be the Lower Merion and North Penn school districts in Montgomery County; a spokesperson for the CHOP PolicyLab said the hospital system is in discussions about testing “in Philadelphia and all of the collar counties” in anticipation of expanding the program throughout the region.
And Mastery Schools, a network of charter schools in Philadelphia and Camden currently operating virtually, is prepared to offer free weekly testing to its staff and 14,000 students upon reopening for in-person instruction in the new year.
“We feel the urgent need to serve our families and our students safely, and to make sure they feel comfortable back in the school building,” said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon, whose charter network has partnered with the Broad Institute, a research center in Cambridge, Mass., to conduct the testing.
The efforts appear to be among the first in the region to introduce regular testing at public schools, which have grappled with whether to offer in-person instruction as the pandemic worsens. Though many school districts have reported few instances of the virus spreading in schools, lately they have confronted staffing shortages with more people quarantining after exposures — and worries that transmission may become more of a problem for schools as cases proliferate.
School leaders say testing will identify people who have the virus but may not have symptoms — thus “helping to avoid the spread of the virus unknowingly,” said North Penn Superintendent Curt Dietrich, whose district is currently offering a hybrid in-person and virtual instruction program to students.
North Penn, which volunteered to be one of the first in the CHOP program, expects to offer weekly testing to students who are routinely within six feet of adults in schools and all staff — amounting to about 2,300 tests a week, Dietrich said.
The rapid antigen tests — to be confirmed by molecular tests if positive — will be provided at no cost to the district, Dietrich said, adding that he hopes to begin testing after the New Year.
In Lower Merion, which enrolls about 8,600 pupils, school officials say they expect all staff will have the opportunity to be tested before high school students — who are shifting to virtual instruction next week — return in person on Jan. 11.
PolicyLab spokesperson Lauren Walens said Friday that discussions around the program were ongoing, but that the hospital system aims to develop a program “that can be replicated and scaled to help schools achieve a safe, equitable environment for children and staff.” She said the program would be led by county health departments.
Val Arkoosh, a physician who chairs the Montgomery County commissioners, said the county’s office of public health was working with CHOP on the project “to assess the usefulness of rapid antigen testing for some teachers and some students.”
“If this testing proves to be helpful, we hope that at some point in the future there will be enough rapid antigen tests available to provide regular testing in schools,” Arkoosh said. “Whether or when there might be enough tests is currently unknown.”
The availability — and cost — of testing has been a challenge for public schools. While Mastery Schools had been talking with vendors since the summer, “recent significant breakthroughs” have reduced the price, said Laura Clancy, who is advising Mastery’s COVID testing initiative.
The Broad Institute offered Mastery a price of $11 per test, Clancy said. She said the cost had dropped — from more than $110 in a lab — thanks in part to “pool” testing, which enables a batch of tests to be analyzed together. If the batch comes back positive, tests are analyzed individually to determine more specific results.
The charter network anticipates it will cost up to $2.5 million to provide free weekly testing — voluntary for students, but mandatory for staff.
Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the district also would offer COVID-19 tests when schools reopen for in-person learning.
“We have been informed that tests will be available for us to do that,” Hite said Thursday. “We’re still working through how we will administer those.” He said the district would test both students and teachers in schools, and possibly have vans going out into hard-hit communities to offer mobile testing sites. A third party will likely administer the tests, he said.
“I don’t think we can make it mandatory at the moment,” Hite said.
Schools that have been conducting regular COVID testing say the practice has proven valuable. At the Shipley School — a private school in Bryn Mawr that tested all 800 students and 200 staff before the school year, and has been randomly testing groups of students and staff weekly — the process served “as a reinforcement for the community that we were taking this seriously,” said Head of School Michael Turner.
It also brought “a big comfort level” to the campus, particularly for teachers before school began in the fall, Turner said. Since then, Shipley has used weekly testing to track case positivity rates, finding higher levels among older students; it used that data in deciding to shift its middle and high schools — which had been operating full-time in person — to virtual instruction leading up to Winter Break.
The effort hasn’t been cheap: Shipley has paid about $100 per test, Turner said — though it’s shifting to pool testing like Mastery. The private school, where annual tuition ranges from $24,000 to $40,000, also hired additional nurses to manage the process.
“It’s a big operation that takes time and people and dollars,” Turner said.