The Pennsylvania Department of Health has launched a voluntary COVID-19 testing for schools across the commonwealth, but the free program isn’t gaining much traction in Bucks County.
Instead, local school districts continue to rely on the Bucks County Health Department for testing.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration unveiled the K-12 Testing Program in August. It's set to run through the 2021-2022 academic year, and is available to any public or private school outside of Philadelphia County that chooses to participate.
The $87-million, federally funded program arose from a partnership with Concentric by Ginkgo, a company that conducts pooled COVID testing in K-12 school districts. The money for the contract comes from the federal coronavirus relief bill.
The program's intent, according to the Department of Health, is to provide safer in-person learning environments for students and educators by offering pooled classroom screening for the virus.
“The testing program is designed to help mitigate the spread and possible outbreak of COVID-19 in schools and further our goal and the desire of Pennsylvania families of maximizing in-person learning throughout the school year,” said DOH press secretary Mark O’Neill.
The testing combines anterior nasal swab samples from everyone in a classroom who has given consent. The results are then run as a single test, according to the DOH.
“The onboarding process is continuing, so a school can elect to opt into the program at any time during the school year,” O'Neill said.
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Since September, the screening has resulted in 4,105 pooled COVID tests that revealed 256 positive cases, and over 37,500 people have been tested statewide through the program, according to Gingko.
The online list of schools and school districts either currently testing or onboarding is updated every week.
So far, a total of 435 schools in Pennsylvania are participating in the K-12 Testing Program, and of those, Bucks County has four private schools showing interest, including Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley.
The Centennial School District is the only Bucks County school district participating, but it is not testing students each week.
It's limiting testing only to unvaccinated employees. The weekly tests happen in the district's administration building.
“Our school board passed a resolution back in August, which is why we’re testing unvaccinated employees, and this was a mitigation strategy to help prevent the spread of COVID,” said Karen Pressler, the Centennial School District’s nursing coordinator.
“Unless the school board makes a change to that resolution, we do plan on continuing to test employees weekly,” she said.
Centennial’s been testing since October through the program, and Pressler says it’s been beneficial to the staff and district as a whole.
“Perhaps there was an exposure, maybe in school or out of school,” Pressler said.
“Testing our unvaccinated employees has worked to our benefit at times, because we've been able to say, ‘someone was exposed, the guideline is to get tested (from) day five to day seven after exposure,’” she said. “Sometimes our weekly testing falls in that timeframe.”
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The district doesn’t have any plans to use the K-12 Testing Program to test its children.
Instead, Centennial refers any symptomatic students or students who were exposed at home to the Bucks County Intermediate Unit for testing.
Most other local school districts also seem to be foregoing the program in favor of directing students to the Bucks IU or the Bucks County Department of Health.
When asked whether their districts are considering participating, this news organization received a “no” response from Central Bucks, Bristol Township, Hatboro-Horsham, Pennsbury, Neshaminy, Palisades and Bensalem Township.
“Our district's administration did not elect to participate in the state’s testing program because the protocols of our Health and Safety Plan demonstrated effectiveness in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 within our schools,” said Stephanie Yoder, New Hope-Solebury School District’s spokesperson.
“In the 2020-2021 school year, there were no reported cases of transmission in our district,” Yoder said. “Additionally, our students and families have local access to testing through the Bucks County Department of Health.”
Bensalem Township will also not be signing up for the pooled testing program, according to spokesperson Susan Phy.
“We continue to share with our staff and families the Bucks County Testing site information with the new site available in Lower Bucks County as of Nov. 4,” she said.
This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Bucks County schools forego PA's free COVID testing in favor of local health department