Regular COVID testing coming soon to public schools in Virginia

Virginia Politics

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Regular coronavirus testing is coming soon to public schools in Virginia but immediate access to those resources may depend on where you live.

The Virginia Department of Health says public K-12 schools generally have not offered periodic testing during the pandemic, though some private schools and universities have used screening to keep cases in check.

“This is something new for a lot of schools,” said Dr. Laurie Forlano, Virginia’s Deputy Commissioner for Population Health, in an interview on Monday.

Dr. Forlano said the state’s new pilot program will provide rapid antigen tests to school districts that request them at no cost to localities. Forlano generally expects testing to begin in a few weeks, though that may vary since the roll out will largely be managed at the local level.

The program will use Abbott BinaxNOW tests. The portable kits can turn around results in about 15 minutes.

Forlano said this will be a helpful tool as most Virginia school districts have students back in the classroom and the wait for COVID-19 vaccine approval for children under 16 continues.  

“Because all children can’t be vaccinated, it is even more important to layer these prevention strategies, one of which is testing. This is the way we detect asymptomatic cases. It does not replace masks,” Forlano said. “I do think testing can really help us understand what is happening in schools and what is not happening in schools and hopefully it will help people feel more confident in sending their kids back.” 

Parents will have to sign a consent form and participation will be optional.

Forlano said VDH is still finalizing recommendations for who should be screened and how often. She generally expects districts to regularly test a sample of students and staff, rather than the whole school.

Forlano said the CDC recommends testing between 10-20 percent of students, though she said schools could also do more targeted programming for high-risk sports.

Even though the program is free for localities, Forlano said staffing and logistical barriers may prevent some districts from participating at first.

For the pilot this spring, she said schools need the resources for community outreach, test administration and data-tracking. She said schools that don’t have a full-time nurse on staff might see challenges, as will districts that are geographically spread out and have less access to laboratories.

“I do not expect that all schools will be offering screening testing. I don’t think that is a reasonable expectation,” Forlano said.

For now, Forlano said VDH is focused on getting as many districts on board as possible this spring. She said several have already shown interest but it’s too soon to share those specifics.

Forlano said the pilot is expected to run through June 30th, unless supplies run out sooner. After that, she said the state will be focused on expanding and improving the program this summer so that more schools can participate in the 2021-2022 school year.

Virginia is expected to get an additional $250 million from the CDC for this purpose in the near future. Forlano said the exact dollar amount has not been finalized.

“No doubt that will help resource a more comprehensive and expanded program. I think it will help make it more accessible to a lot more schools than would have been possible otherwise,” Forlano said.

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