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August 16, 2021

Pennsylvania schools can receive free, in-classroom COVID-19 testing

Philadelphia County is not eligible for the voluntary program

With students returning to in-person learning in the coming weeks amid a surge of new COVID-19 cases, Pennsylvania health officials unveiled a plan to bring testing and vaccines to schools throughout the state. 

All K-12 schools — except for those in Philadelphia County — will have the option to participate in a free, voluntary COVID-19 testing program through a partnership with Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks. Health officials also called on vaccine providers to "make every effort" to coordinate with any school or university that wants to set up a vaccine clinic for its students, employees and families.

Monday's announcement comes as all but one Pennsylvania county are reporting moderate, substantial or high COVID-19 transmission, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At schools that elect to participate in the testing program, consenting students will take weekly nasal swab tests. The tests from each classroom will be pooled together, and only one result will come back: positive or negative. If the result is positive, schools will follow guidance from local health departments to administer additional tests to identify which student or students have contracted the virus.

Schools should get test results back within 24-48 hours, said Dr. Karen Hogan, of Ginkgo

Students who do not consent to the program will have to get tested elsewhere if their classrooms have a positive result.

Ginkgo is operating similar statewide testing programs in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Arizona and elsewhere. Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said the department "heard nothing but positive feedback" from officials in those states when considering the partnership with Ginko. 

With students under the age of 12 not yet eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19, Beam said the program will be invaluable in keeping in-person learning — as well as sports and other extracurricular activities — on schedule.

"Across the country, this methodology has been used in schools as a simple and scalable way to easily test many people at once while minimizing resource strain on classroom teachers or school administrators," Beam added. "... Early detection like this is exactly what we need to keep students in classrooms and COVID out."

The statewide testing program, as well as the push to establish vaccination clinics for school communities, will be funded by the CDC, health officials said. Clinics can be held at schools or locations agreed upon by administrators and vaccine providers.

"Safe and effective vaccines are our best protection available," said Beam, who applauded schools that already have connected with vaccine providers to create clinics ahead of the first day of classes.

If vaccine providers are unable to coordinate clinics, they are responsible for directing schools to the health department, which will provide contact information for other providers, per an order from Beam.

"Students and teachers across Pennsylvania are looking forward to returning to their classrooms for the new school year – let's do everything we can to make sure they are safe while teaching, learning and growing together," Secretary of Education Noe Ortega said. "We encourage Pennsylvania's schools to continue to coordinate COVID-19 vaccination clinics and participate in the free COVID-19 testing program to help protect their communities and maintain healthy conditions."

Philadelphia County is not eligible for the program due to the way its schools are funded, Beam said. 

The School District of Philadelphia implemented a random COVID-19 testing program when students returned to the classroom last spring. But most students will not be subjected to testing this year unless they experience symptoms or are a close contact of someone who tested positive. Weekly testing will continue among district employees. 

Three district schools, as well as the Philadelphia Zoo, are hosting vaccination events for teenage students before in-person classes begin Aug. 31. 

Gov. Tom Wolf has said he won't institute a statewide mask mandate in schools but will instead leave that decision to the districts. Beam on Monday said, "There is no discussion taking place as to whether or not there will be a statewide masking mandate."

Masks will be required for students and teachers in the School District of Philadelphia. 

Pennsylvania also surpassed a vaccination milestone Monday — more than 80% of adult residents have had at least one COVID-19 shot. And 64% are fully vaccinated.