School has been in session at City Neighbors Charter School for 5 weeks, and Lawrence Lanahan and Andrea Appleton have had at least one of their two children at home in quarantine for more than half that time. Neither the fourth grader nor the first grader had COVID, but delays in testing and contact tracing meant both missed a week or more of classes.
The constant disruption of the school routine has begun to take its toll.
“It feels more disruptive than this last year,” Appleton said. “I feel they are losing days of instruction.”
After returning to classrooms in the spring with a testing program that drew national praise, attempts to scale up Baltimore City’s weekly testing program now that all students are back in class have frustrated some families and teachers. It is taking too long, they say, for tests results to come back and for school officials to decide who is a close contact and who is not. The result is the loss of precious classroom days after 18 months of learning online.
Despite all the issues, parents and teachers say they don’t want the city to stop COVID testing because they believe it keeps their children safer than students in other school districts. They just want it to work better. City school officials say they are refining the system and resolving many of the issues as quickly as possible.
“When you take on one of the most ambitious COVID testing problems in the country it is a lot, and we ask for patience. It is going incredibly well,” said Alison Perkins-Cohen, chief of staff for the city school system. “But we would like a little patience from the community in relation to what we are doing compared to most jurisdictions.”
Baltimore City is one of the state’s only school systems that is trying to test every unvaccinated student and staff member once a week in hopes of quickly identifying cases where people aren’t showing symptoms and stopping the spread. If it works as designed the weekly testing could not only lower the risk within city schools, but tamp down infections in the city as a whole.
But the testing also has proved logistically difficult. Some test results have taken three or four days to come back, leaving children quarantined at home waiting for results even when it is later learned they don’t have the virus. And even when the tests do come back negative, it has sometimes taken the central administration at North Avenue days to decide whether a child in a classroom is a close contact who should quarantine.
The school system also has had difficulty hiring enough test coordinators for each school, and some couriers have failed to pick up the testing samples from schools to deliver them to laboratories for analysis.
Perkins-Cohen said the school system made adjustments to the program last week that will speed up the process — such as streamlining the schedule for couriers picking up tests — and more are coming soon.
Since the system doesn’t have enough testing coordinators — it hopes to hire more — it’s changed testing dates in some schools so that one test coordinator can cover two schools. Test results are coming back more quickly, too, she said.
Another problem is that thousands of parents have yet to sign the consent forms that allow their children to be tested.
That concerns school system staff, said Baltimore Teachers Union President Diamonte Brown.
The school system must find a way to make sure parents are given incentives to sign the forms that allow their children to be tested at school. The district has said that if they don’t they must take their child to be tested elsewhere and then show evidence of a negative test.
Students won’t be able to go on field trips or take part in after-school activities, but that isn’t enough of incentive, Brown said.
“Right now not filling out the form has no consequence,” she said.
Brown believes the school system should have started making parents feel more comfortable about the testing and in-person learning by inviting them into their schools over the summer, showing them what the testing looks like, who will administer it and other details. The district also needed to make sure that parents understand all of the steps taken to make classrooms safe, she said.
So far, the school system has not prohibited students from attending school without a signed consent form. More than half of students have turned in their forms.
“This is a social contract where we are all collectively responsible for keeping each other safe,” Perkins-Cohen said. “We are making sure that we are giving parents the information they need to make sure they understand the benefits of COVID testing. Our positivity rates are incredibly low and our schools are incredibly safe places.”
The city school system’s plan is to test every student each week. In high schools and some middle school grades that means individual saliva tests with results in a couple of days.
In elementary and most middle schools, that means a school nurse or test coordinator comes into a classroom with the testing supplies on a cart. Each student in the classroom swabs the inside of their own noses and puts the swab in a cup with their classmates’ samples. Once the students get used to it, the process is quick and easy and doesn’t disrupt class for more than a few minutes.
Results are usually available within a day or two.
If the “pooled” test pops positive, then each student in that pool is given an individual PCR test to determine who in the pool is ill and sent home to wait. And that is where the delays have been problematic.
In the Lanahan and Appleton household, their fourth grader was sent home and waited for an entire week. The test was negative, but they weren’t permitted back to school until contract tracers decided they weren’t close contacts with the infected person.
The day their fourth grader returned to school, the first grader was in a positive pool test and they waited a week again. The day their first grader returned, the fourth grader was sent home again. Lanahan said the testing results came back more quickly the third time and he will only miss a few days of school rather than a week.
Kristin Speaker, whose child goes to Thomas Johnson Elementary Middle School in Riverside is frustrated as well. Her daughter was pool tested Thursday and she was notified Friday night by the school that the pool test was positive and her daughter needed to quarantine. She was individually tested at school Monday and was out of school through Wednesday when the PCR test finally returned negative and she was deemed not a close contact of the person who was positive.
“It would have been great if the school had been able to turn around those individual test results quicker to get kids back in school and identify the positive kid,” she said.
Lanahan would like to see schools use rapid tests to verify, or even replace, pool tests.
Perkins-Cohen said the district will get faster results by the end of October, when officials will be able to identify which students have tested positive in a pool test without a second, individual test. The change should shave days off quarantines for students who don’t test positive. Perkins-Cohen maintained that periodic testing is crucial to keeping schools safe.
“To remove [positive cases] before they have symptoms is why the transmission rate is so low and why Baltimore city schools are so safe,” Perkins-Cohen said.
Data released by the state last week showed that as of Sept. 22, the city school system had among the lowest COVID case rates in Maryland.