NEW YORK - The largest school district in the U.S. is rolling out an ambitious and costly plan to test students and staff for the coronavirus, bidding to help keep school buildings open amid a rise in infections among the nation's school-age children.
New York City is set to begin testing 10% to 20% of students and staff in every building monthly beginning Thursday, the same day the final wave of the district’s more than 1 million students returns to brick-and-mortar classrooms for the first time in six months.
“Every single school will have testing. It will be done every single month. It will be rigorous,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in announcing the plan as part of an agreement with the teachers union to avert a strike. At least 79 Department of Education employees have died from the virus.
With an estimated 100,000-120,000 tests expected each month, each costing between $78 and $90, New York City’s school-based testing plan goes well beyond safety protocols seen in most other districts.
De Blasio says regular testing is needed in a district the size of NYC's and in an area of the country that previously witnessed unnerving surges of the virus.
The coronavirus struck hard at the elderly early in the pandemic and is now increasingly infecting American children and teens in a trend authorities say appears to be fueled by school reopenings and other activities. Children of all ages now make up 10% of all U.S cases, up from 2% in April, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported Tuesday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that the incidence of COVID-19 in school-age children began rising in early September as many returned to classrooms. Its recommendations emphasize distancing, cleaning and face coverings for most reopening plans — though no requirement for universal testing of students and staff.
The number of districts relying on some level of testing to keep the virus in check is likely to increase after President Donald Trump this week encouraged governors to prioritize schools when distributing millions of rapid coronavirus tests provided by the federal government.
In western New York, the Niagara Falls City School District did not initially include school-based testing in its reopening plans, reasoning that was the job of hospitals and doctors. But on Wednesday, Superintendent Mark Laurrie was in the process of buying five rapid testing machines for his district, each about $2,500, after shutting down a middle school where three staff members tested positive.
“When you see the impact that has on academics — that’s what we’re here for — then I think there’s a higher calling to do more testing,” Laurrie said. “That way we don’t have to rely on anybody else. We can rely on ourselves.”
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There is little if any available data to show how many districts nationwide have adopted in-school virus testing, said Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security.
As many as 40% of people infected with COVID-19 exhibit no symptoms.
Positive cases found in New York City schools will trigger set responses, beginning with tracing teams dispatched to the school to figure out who else may have been exposed. A single case will push that student or teacher’s entire class to remote learning until contact tracing is complete. More than one case will mean an entire school will temporarily halt in-person instruction.