Anyone that has worked in either Science or technology knows that the more data that you have the closer the experts can come to offering truth in analysis. This same concept stands with the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world continues to learn about the virus we are seeing that it performs as many viruses do: infection, transmission, and eventually mutation. We are already seeing a variety of variants showing up in many countries and if we are to try to focus on reopening out schools with in-person learning, we need to study the constant stream of data from all sources. One of the key aspects of the statistics has been on COVID-19 testing. This single area of study has allowed medical professionals to accomplish quarantining/isolation and to track the transmission so that it reduces additional infection cases.
Initial Information Based on Initial Safety Protocols
The first groups of data that were being shared from K-12 schools that remained open were based on the initial safety protocols given by the healthcare professionals. These protocols focused on wearing masks, hand sanitizing, social distancing, and reducing class sizes. Little was offered in the way of COVID-19 testing in the school environments and those that did get tested were usually individuals that experienced COVID-19 symptoms and were tested off-premise. School systems that insisted on remaining open during the pandemic were often told to get any testing by coordinating with local public health departments and few schools even had any strategy for COVID-19 outside of sending any symptomatic student or staff member to an outside location. There were even some states that were discouraging COVID-19 testing of students. The statistics gained from these initial responses were slightly helpful but offered little in the way of answers for a broader group of those that were asymptomatic and transmitting the COVID-19 virus. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) has estimated that about 40% of the cases of COVID-19 are asymptomatic with 50% of the transmission of the virus happening from individuals that are asymptomatic. These results did little to help to encourage students and staff to be in an in-person school environment or to reopen those schools that had opted to close during the pandemic.
Challenges Getting Testing in Schools
There were a series of initial challenges involved in trying to get COVID-19 testing in K-12 schools.
- Access to testing in K-12 schools relied primarily on the public health departments or private contracting. The cost of testing for students reduced the ability for schools to gain testing kits for anyone other than those showing COVID-19 symptoms. These have since been reduced as the federal government has subsidized all COVID-19 testing, no matter what the insurance condition.
- The time that it took for the initial COVID-19 test results ranged from 2-5 days. In the meantime, the individual tested could be transmitting the virus or become infected. The demand for rapid tests became very apparent but access and wide distribution of the tests had not become available. A study model that was examined showed that COVID-19 testing that offered same-day results prevented 80% of new transmissions, whereas the COVID-19 testing that required the 2-5 day waiting period only stopped 5%.
- Racial and socioeconomic disparities in schools within communities also played an increased role in lack of testing access. Additional problems exist with low-income households and families that have children with special health needs. All of these individuals became part of the high-risk categories for getting and spreading COVID-19.
- One of the biggest hurdles to overcome for K-12 schools involves the legalities of the timely reporting of test results for COVID-19 tests given in the school environment. Labs could not legally disclose the results without parental authorization. Although schools were allowed to counsel parents and receive the authorization, this took far too long and were often not part of any plan developed by schools as a COVID-19 strategy.
- Responses for positive COVID-19 test results were also quite confusing. In some cases the results of tests might incorporate both negative and positive results that involved additional testing to gain a correct answer. K-12 schools had few, if any plans, except to quarantine those that tested positive. Remote learning procedures were slow in the beginning but did become more highly used as schools across the country closed down.
Reopening Schools Depends on Testing
Local, state, and federal officials became acutely aware that COVID-19 testing is the key priority to reopening schools. Experts have made recommendations that rapid tests for the virus be supplied as one of the highest ranking items in the COVID-19 emergency package for schools, along with the resources of nurses and healthcare professionals to give the tests. While the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) has advised that each community design COVID-19 strategies that fit their schools and communities, there should be specific strategies included by the federal government for schools so that there is equitable distribution to all K-12 schools. As more schools receive funding from the Americans Rescue Plan Act of 2021, part of the strategy that is being recommended is to incorporate the use of COVID-19 rapid testing within the schools. The data has already shown that rapid tests offer improvements in reducing the transmission of the virus, especially when given to both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals. Moving forward, schools must place a priority in obtaining authorization from parents/caregivers to share the data with state and federal organizations so that they can continue to track the virus and the success of both testing and vaccines in reducing the pandemic in the country.