New school-based COVID testing could put dent in soaring student absences

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Palm Beach County school leaders hope to put a dent in skyrocketing student and staff absenteeism by offering daily COVID testing at school for those who have been exposed.

The countywide rollout of what they are calling "Test to Know" began this month but has been slow, with approximately a third of the district's roughly 180 schools online so far, said Keith Oswald, chief of equity and wellness who heads the district's COVID protocols.

The program offers free testing for up to five school days to anyone, staff or students, who may have been exposed to someone sick with COVID-19. Test negative? Head to class. Test positive? Go home.

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Previously, the only people who could be tested for COVID on campus were those exhibiting symptoms.

Already the effort is paying off at Washington Elementary, keeping several students in the classroom who have daily tested negative despite having relatives at home sick, said Principal Vernicka Rolle-Murray.

"We've tested about five students in that situation, and it's been working out," Rolle-Murray said. "I've heard some concerns about too much testing, but for us, it's good. Ten days of quarantine is a long time to be at home." If students already are behind, 10 days is more like a month despite remote access to lessons and tutoring, she said.

Palm Beach County Schools Chief of Equity and Wellness Keith Oswald in a file photo. Oswald heads the district's COVID response efforts, including the Test to Know program.
Palm Beach County Schools Chief of Equity and Wellness Keith Oswald in a file photo. Oswald heads the district's COVID response efforts, including the Test to Know program.

Schools coming online slowly in COVID testing program; logistics are daunting

The logistics of implementing the program have been daunting, explaining why schools are coming online only a couple at a time, Oswald said.

The district needed to insure schools have enough kits. Principals had to sort out details including who does the swabbing and where. Other agencies, including the Department of Health and the county's Health Care District, which respectively track COVID and coordinate school nurses, had to be in the loop.

But the need was also great.

Student absences have regularly clocked in above 10,000 a day and reached as high as 15,700 in the past two weeks, more than doubling what was typical in Palm Beach County schools pre-pandemic.

Students out because they have tested positive for COVID-19 accounts] for only a small part of that number. In the10-day stretch ending Jan. 18, roughly 1,502 students came down with the illness.

But thousands of others are likely staying at home out of concern that they have been in contact with someone who tested positive.

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New state law puts the decision to quarantine after exposure in parents' hands. Only a student with symptoms must stay at home. Still, many parents exercising abundant precaution or frustrated in their attempts to get children tested lean toward keeping children at home, principals report.

"This week we've made a number of calls to parents who thought they needed to keep the students home because they, the parents, have COVID," Rolle-Murray said.

In the past two weeks, roughly 20 kids were tested. None of the students came back positive, said Rolle-Murray.

More COVID tests being done at high schools

The testing program gets more traffic at high schools, where enrollment typically is greater than 2,000 students and every student who reports being sick with COVID has come in close contact with more students as they attend multiple classes in a day.

"For every positive, we have 30 to 40 who we consider exposed," said David Alfonso, principal at Palm Beach Lakes High, one of the schools to pilot the program beginning before the holidays.

When those students are notified of the exposure, they're given a choice to quarantine at home, come to school without a test or to test to know each morning. About 60% choose to test, Alfonso said.

Washington Elementary School Principal  Vernicka Rolle-Murray sends students on to class after their breakfast Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021 in Riviera Beach on the first day of the school year.
Washington Elementary School Principal Vernicka Rolle-Murray sends students on to class after their breakfast Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021 in Riviera Beach on the first day of the school year.

The offer has been a relief to families particularly in the post-holiday surge as at-home testing kits have become scarce and testing sites inconvenient or unavailable, Alfonso said.

"Test to know helps keep kids in school after they're exposed to someone who tested positive. This helps reduce spread on campus and, in addition, this gives more peace of mind to a parent who's deciding whether to send their child to school. The same is true for employees," Oswald said.

At Washington Elementary, it also helped respond when the school was notified more than a week after the fact that a student tested positive, Rolle-Murray said. In that one case, the child had tested positive over the holiday, but had been back in school without symptoms for seven days. Rather than send the child home to quarantine, they were able to test her on the spot with her mother's permission. The test came back negative.

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Contact tracing being curb at some districts in Florida

Still, Test-to-Know relies heavily on contact tracing within schools — an exercise that has been halted by either health or school authorities in at least four Florida school districts this month.

Duval schools announced Jan. 14 that health officials there will stop tracing contacts of those people who are in close proximity to someone diagnosed with COVID. "The school will send only one letter per class per week notifying parents of possible exposure that week if a case is reported," the Jacksonville Times Union reported.

Contact tracing is also being curbed in Brevard, Pasco and Okeechobee counties, according to local news accounts.

In Palm Beach County schools, much of the tracing on campus has been done by school principals or administrative staff who would track down who sat by whom for how long when a case was reported. That information was then sent to local health authorities.

District leaders had hoped a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would help shift that sometimes hours-long burden to someone contracted to do the work. The groundwork for the grant was laid by the school board in September. Money would've come to the schools through the Department of Health, but, it never materialized.

Department of Health officials in Palm Beach County told The Palm Beach Post that "the grant was not issued." Further questions were referred to the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee, where officials say they are still looking into the matter.

The district found $1,000 to $2,000 per school to cover Test-to-Know costs, including a stipend to the people on campus who will do the swabbing and paperwork involved in COVID testing and reporting.

"The biggest challenge at the school level is staffing to be able to do this efficiently," Oswald said. "We are still in the early stages."

The schools aren't using teachers or instructional staff, which are already in scarce supply. At Washington Elementary, a para-professional who helps students with behavioral issues has been trained to do the tests. His backup is the principal's secretary. So far, it hasn't proved to be too time-consuming, Rolle-Murray said.

At Palm Beach Lakes High an administrative assistant welcomed the opportunity to help out and earn a little more cash, Alfonso said. She sets up in the school's library, and because she is working with high schoolers, she has streamlined the process to about 10 tests in as many minutes, he said.

The students are directed how to swab their own noses while the tester moves down the line to collect the sample and run it through the test kit. The process has not been too time consuming. Alfonso estimates 70 people can be tested within the first period. So far, the demand seems to have peaked last week, he said.

"We have found a few positives, but not a lot. This helps us keep from spreading it," Alfonso said. "And for our students who are already a bit behind, we cannot let them get further behind."


This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: COVID testing rolled out in Palm Beach County schools for exposed

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