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August 25, 2021

Push for widespread student COVID-19 testing intensifies as Philly public schools mandate vaccines for employees

Superintendent Hite says regular testing disrupts in-person learning; advocates argue that it keeps classrooms open

Education Schools
Philadelphia schools COVID testing Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

The School District of Philadelphia will only test most students for COVID-19 if they are displaying symptoms of the virus. With the country trying to combat the highly contagious delta variant, some say that's not enough.

As School District of Philadelphia board members sat down for a special meeting Tuesday evening to unanimously approve a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all district employees, Jerry Jordan wanted to call the group's attention another mitigation strategy: testing.

Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, has been a vocal supporter of the vaccine mandate but also wants the district to expand its testing protocol to include all students — not just those who are displaying symptoms of the coronavirus. His plea came just days before in-person classes resume Aug. 31, when most of the district's 119,000-plus students will step inside school buildings for the first time in more than a year.

"The district must take every step to mitigate this deadly virus, and I urge them to make the necessary course corrections in their health and safety plan," Jordan said. "This should include regular testing of students as well as an accurate and timely COVID reporting dashboard."

Superintendent William Hite addressed the latter of Jordan's concerns, saying the district's coronavirus dashboard should go live during the first few days of September. But it appears testing all students, including those who are asymptomatic, is off the table for now.

Last academic year, students were subjected to random COVID-19 tests when in-person learning resumed for some grades. But despite mandating weekly testing for all employees, regardless of vaccination status, the district only plans to administer tests to students who are symptomatic or came in close contact with someone who tested positive.

During an Aug. 18 board meeting, Hite explained the decision by saying "it is more valuable for students to be in classrooms receiving instruction than to be removed for testing," according to a report from Chalkbeat Philadelphia

"Regular COVID tests for students is one of the key ways that we can not only op fen schools but keep them open," Jordan countered Tuesday. "Testing must include asymptomatic students, and despite millions of dollars in available funding, the district has opted not to test asymptomatic students."

Some students will be tested regularly, however, regardless of whether they are displaying symptoms. The district will implement a twice-weekly "test to play" policy for students participating in sports or the performing arts, Hite said. He previously said students who present proof of vaccination can opt out of that policy, according to Chalkbeat Philadelphia. 

Students with disabilities that prevent them from safely following a district-wide mask mandate also will be tested regularly, Hite said Tuesday. 

Many of the district's students are under age 12 and therefore ineligible to receive a vaccine. Several board members expressed concern about sending their young children into schools with teachers and other staff members who may not yet be vaccinated for COVID-19 as the delta variant continues to infect younger Americans at a high rate. 

When asked if the district would consider a "test to stay" policy, in which schools conduct widespread testing to identify and isolate any student who tests positive while allowing in-person classes to continue for those who test negative, acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said Philadelphia's transmission rate is too high. 

"As the numbers have gone up, it started seeming just too risky to do at this time," she said. "If we were to see low transmission and a positive rate of 1% and our hospitalizations are back down where they were, yes; and somewhere between here and there, as we all get more comfortable, things are going in the right direction, then we would like to try it. 

"I think the district has been very open to doing that. It's just that this seemed like the wrong moment, because we're not only at high transmission, we're still looking at a graph that is just going straight up. We have to get a handle on that first." 

As of Wednesday, the district had not yet set a deadline for employees to be fully vaccinated. Hite said he would begin negotiating with union members immediately to determine what "meaningful consequences" will be enforced for those who do not comply. Employees can request exemptions for "certain documented medical circumstances or sincerely held religious beliefs."

"Once we work out the conditions and the processes for the mandate, it may mean that individuals are tested more frequently or have to wear more masks," Hite said. "That will be part of what we are negotiating with the unions." 

The board estimates "several thousand employees" have not yet gotten their shots, but a district spokesperson told PhillyVoice that the district hasn't been keeping track of staff vaccination data. 

Bettigole said the health department is working with the district to determine the percentage of district employees who have been vaccinated but cannot share vaccination records for individual teachers. She applauded the district's decision to mandate vaccines and masks, the latter of which she called "the single most important thing" to protect children in schools.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends regular testing to screen unvaccinated people, including students, faculty and staff in school settings, "to identify unknown cases so that measures can be taken to prevent further transmission," especially when it is difficult to maintain social distancing. 

Citing this CDC guidance, nine members of Philadelphia City Council sent Hite and school board President Joyce Wilkerson a letter urging them to continue district-wide mandatory testing of asymptomatic students.

"Given the current community transmission rates, increasing numbers of breakthrough cases and vaccine ineligibility for younger students, we believe that the practice of widespread weekly testing for students should continue this fall," the council members wrote.

Due to funding logistics, schools in Philadelphia County were left out of Pennsylvania's partnership with Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks to bring optional COVID-19 testing into K-12 classrooms across the state. Consenting students at schools that elect to participate in the program will undergo weekly nasal swab tests, which will be pooled together by classroom. The tests will be processed together within 24-48 hours, 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.

"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," acting state Secretary of Health Alison Beam said earlier this month. "Early detection like this is exactly what we need to keep students in classrooms and COVID out."

Earlier this month, Philadelphia school board members approved two resolutions totaling more than $30 million with Dentrust P.C. and other vendors to provide on-site COVID-19 testing for asymptomatic employees and mobile sites for the testing of symptomatic students and staff, according to Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Those resolutions note that "testing protocols may change during the year in response to guidance from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health."

If a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, the district says it plans to notify families of people who were in close contact with the infected person. Those people will be required to isolate at home for at least 10 days. Classrooms and schools will only close under the advice of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.