HARRISBURG – Even after COVID-19 cases in children rose and district leaders worked to contain outbreaks among high school students, Pennsylvania schools have been slow to adopt a multi-million dollar wolf management program that includes free weekly testing.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, only 396 schools enrolled between mid-August and September 30th. That’s from more than 5,000 charter, private and public schools across the country.
Within that total, 60 of Pennsylvania’s 500 public school districts are represented – up from just 30 on September 14th. Philadelphia districts and several of its collar districts are participating in a separate testing program.
The wolf administration and school authorities cited different reasons for the lack of participation, including the fear of finding too many cases and simply being too overwhelmed with a chaotic start to the academic year.
“Any reluctance on the part of the schools can be due to the fact that we have to continue to educate them about the availability.” Acting Health Minister Alison Beam said this at a recent press conference. “And of course we tried ad nauseam to make sure that schools were aware of this.”
After schools abruptly closed in March 2020, most Pennsylvania students spent the following months, at least part-time, at home. Several studies have shown that students across the country have lagged behind in reading and arithmetic due to the pandemic, with those attending low-income schools experiencing greater setbacks in test scores than wealthier classmates.
This year the aim was to reopen the schools and make up for valuable teaching time that had been lost. But the return to face-to-face learning has brought its own challenges, compounded by the implementation of a nationwide mask mandate enacted days into the new academic year.
Executives have spent “Enormous amount of time and energy” Navigating the order, according to Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
Schools across the state are also grappling with sudden COVID-19 outbreaks, he said, and responsibility for contact tracing – the process of notifying people who may have been exposed to someone infected with the coronavirus – has also fallen on school staff .
Testing can be a useful tool, but it is also another logistical hurdle to overcome.
“I can very well understand how that would have been put on hold”, said DiRocco.
The state health department hired Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks to run the testing program in July. Although the case numbers were relatively small at the time, Beam told lawmakers that the testing program was key to preventing outbreaks in schools.
The agency estimated that the year-long federally funded program would cost $ 87 million, although that number could change depending on how many schools participate, a health department spokesman said.
Students and teachers who choose to participate are usually tested weekly. Each person wipes their own nostril, and the samples from each classroom are in a process called. mixed together “Bundled Tests.” The results will be returned in a day or two and will show whether the virus is present in this group of people. If the result is negative, anyone in this group is unlikely to be sick. If the pooled test is positive, it is possible that someone in that group has COVID-19.
From there, school principals can decide whether to recommend additional testing or quarantine.
Returning students to class was a priority for many of the Pennsylvania schools that ginkgo encountered when the program launched in late August, said program director Karen Hogan.
Some school principals have raised concerns that if they start testing they will find more cases of COVID-19 than expected and will be forced to take additional containment measures such as reducing the number of cases. B. the closure of schools.
But the data doesn’t show that, Hogan said. In fact, many districts are reporting lower than expected infection rates, and this shows that the containment strategies they are putting in place are working.
“One of the most important things is that the granular level of data you can get in a school community will be very important in figuring out how we can relax mitigation strategies over time.” said Hogan.
The state health department wouldn’t publish a list of participating counties or schools to Spotlight PA, but a spokesman said the information will eventually be made public on the department’s website.
Spotlight PA independently identified Pittsburgh Public Schools, 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 should begin the week of September 26, and plans for student testing will be announced upon completion, a district spokesman said.
The Mount Lebanon School District in the southern suburbs of Pittsburgh, which educates about 5,300 students, is also participating, according to a spokesman. So far, around 12% of students and staff combined have signed up for the first round of testing, which should begin the week of October 3rd.
Outside the state program, many counties in southeast 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 last fall and launched in January.
The Philadelphia School District, the largest in the state with approximately 124,000 students, uses the ACE-IT project to conduct several school-based testing programs, including required tests for students participating in contact sports or performing arts such as band and choir.
In Counties of Chester, Delaware and Montgomery, 43 school districts – as well as several technical, middle and private schools – are also using the ACE-IT project, said Maggie Eisen, implementation manager.
Eisen did not expect strong interest in the program this fall. However, since many schools faced unexpected outbreaks fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant, more registered to participate.
“Last month it was really, really busy with people who wanted to get up around the eleventh hour.” She said.
From August 26 to September 1 – the first or second week of the school year for many counties – 4,043 cases were reported nationwide in school-age children between the ages of 5 and 18, state data shows. Since then, the number of new cases has increased week by week, reaching 7,352 new cases reported from September 22-28.
Pennsylvania public and private schools enroll more than two million students.
It is difficult to use past data to predict how the virus will spread in schools, said Abby Rudolph, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Temple University. Last year schools were closed, vaccines were not available and the Delta variant was yet to emerge.
Plenty of tests in schools could help monitor how well efforts like masking and distancing are working, she said, and spot outbreaks before they become widespread.
“To be able to operate personally, which they didn’t do to this extent last year, you need this extra security measure to just keep an eye on things and make sure it doesn’t go undetected.” said Rudolf.
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