The COVID-19 pandemic has been an insidious, persistent foe.
Over the past 20 months it has taken lives, it has sickened millions. It has shut down businesses and cost people their jobs.
And it has wreaked havoc on schools.
Students have at times been robbed of their classrooms, instead forced to learn virtually from their homes. Sports and school plays have been canceled, proms and graduation ceremonies have been derailed.
Students have had to wear masks, to social distance, to undergo temperature checks and daily self-evaluations of possible COVID symptoms. Schools have been digging deep, searching for any and every tool they can find to fight the pandemic.
And recently, some local districts have added a new one.
Last week, the state Department of Health unveiled a list of schools across Pennsylvania that have already or are in the process of implementing a state-funded, in-school COVID testing program.
Five Berks County school districts and one private school were on that list: Brandywine Heights, Hamburg, Fleetwood, Wilson, Wyomissing and Lighthouse Academy.
Of those, Brandywine Heights, Hamburg and Lighthouse Academy were listed as already having begun testing. The rest were listed as “onboarding,” which means they have applied to be part of the program but have not yet begun testing.
Statewide there are 424 schools participating in the testing program. The state will update the list of schools taking part and their statuses each Wednesday on the Department of Health website.
The free testing program, which is being funded by federal COVID relief funds the state has received, was first announced in mid-August, just before the start of the new school year.
The state at that time had just signed an $87 million with Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based biotechnology company, to provide rapid COVID testing in schools at no cost to school districts or families. The program is completely optional, with districts having a choice whether or not to take part.
And, if a district does use the program, it is optional for students to participate.
When the testing program was initially pitched by state officials, it was focused on pooled testing. That involves collecting nasal swabs from a group of students, usually a single classroom, and testing them collectively for COVID.
If the test turns out positive, it can be followed up with individual diagnostic testing to determine who is infected.
At the time, local school leaders shied away from that idea, instead saying they would be interested in a program that offered individual testing for students who were symptomatic or who had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID.
And that’s how local districts that have now opted in are using the program.
What’s going on in Berks
Dr. Andrew Hoffert, Wilson’s director of student supports and services, said opting into the program is all about trying to make things easier for families.
“We were hearing from some of our families that it was getting pretty difficult to schedule rapid testing,” he said. “We really wanted to be able to provide this as a service, and provide it in a way that is meaningful to individual students.”
Having access to rapid testing is pretty important for students. In particular, it will allow students who have had to quarantine to get back into their classroom sooner.
“It takes away some of the waiting game,” Hoffert said. “This allows us to work with the family to get a child back into school as soon as possible. And that’s always our goal, to have kids in school.”
Wilson’s testing program will begin today. Rapid testing will be available each Monday from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Parents interested in getting their child tested can contact their school nurse, who will help the navigate an online system to schedule an appointment. The tests will by administered by staff from a company the district has contract with to provide the service.
While Wilson is just getting started with the program, Brandywine Heights has been offering testing to students since Oct. 19.
Superintendent Andrew Potteiger said his district is providing daily, drive-through testing where families stay in their vehicle, are administered a Rapid COVID-19 test and wait about 15 minutes for their results. The testing is optional for students who have displayed symptoms of COVID or were in close contact with someone who has tested positive.
Like at Wilson, Brandywine Heights opted into the testing program because of a need in the community.
“We started this process after hearing from several families that it was challenging to find locations and time availability to receive a COVID-19 test,” Potteiger said. “We looked at this as an outreach opportunity. In a rural community such as our district for instance, there are limited family medical providers, no large medical firms, no urgent cares, no pediatricians and no pharmacies.
“This is a great opportunity to support our families and students as a school-community partner.”
Dr. Greg Miller, Fleetwood superintendent, said his district is in the process of starting a testing program.
“Our goal is to provide an optional service for staff and families,” he said. “As we all know, getting tested can at times be challenging.”
Through the state program, Fleetwood has begun offering free testing to staff. A version for students will follow close behind.
“Our goal is to have this available to help navigate those who become symptomatic during the workday as well as those who are currently quarantined,” Miller said. “Additionally, our goal is to begin a drive-up service for students in which parents can schedule a time that they can bring their child to our middle school to be tested. We hope to have this piece available after Thanksgiving holiday.”
The local districts that are already delving into the state testing program might soon have company. Hoffert said he has been contacted by officials from several other districts inquiring about Wilson’s experience.
“It seems like there’s some interest, people want to know it’s going for us,” he said.
Source: Berkshire mont