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More than half of Maryland school systems considering regular COVID testing

More than half of Maryland school systems soon may institute routine testing for unvaccinated students or staff in an effort to tamp down the spread of the coronavirus among schoolchildren and the surrounding communities.

But the expensive testing, paid for with up to $189 million in federal funds, would saddle already overburdened school leaders and nurses with another task as they try to give students a normal school year.

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According to the Maryland Department of Health, 14 of the state’s 24 school systems have applied for a program that allows them to pick from a list of companies approved by Maryland’s Board of Public Works to do the testing. The samples would be collected at schools and given to the companies to be processed within days.

Baltimore City, which was one of the first large districts in the area to begin the testing last February, resumed its pool testing this week for everyone in schools who isn’t vaccinated. Anne Arundel County is committed to doing it as well, the school system said, but has not worked out the details. Baltimore and Howard counties will begin testing staff who aren’t vaccinated weekly.

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Across the nation, only a small number of large school districts, including Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, are testing staff or students who have not shown symptoms.

“Testing once a week is critical if we want to monitor” the virus, said Leah Perkinson, manager of pandemics at the Rockefeller Foundation. “It gives us a signal and tells us where the virus is. Contact tracing will enable us to keep it from spreading.”

Schools, which have limited expertise in public health, have been reluctant to start testing.

“It is like asking a whole school on a field trip to somewhere no one has been,” she said.

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Perkinson acknowledged that asymptomatic testing is another “burden” for staff to take on, but testing companies can help figure out ways to reduce staff time.

Baltimore County recently required staff to be vaccinated or submit to regular testing, and the new testing will screen those who aren’t vaccinated, spokesman Charles Herndon said.

Harford County schools are looking into it, according to district officials.

“We are not currently doing surveillance testing but have been approved for the testing program should we decide to,” said Brian Bassett, a spokesman for Howard County schools. “We are currently contracted with a vendor to provide testing for staff who do not confirm their vaccination status.”

Two rural counties in Maryland, Charles and Dorchester, have signed contracts with 20/20 GeneSystems to test students who voluntarily opt into the program, according to Jiming Zhou, chief operating officer of 20/20 GeneSystems. Charles County, he said, has begun testing already.

Screening individuals who aren’t symptomatic for COVID-19 is a measure that can reduce the number of cases over time, as well as reduce community spread. In its August guidance to local school systems, Maryland’s health and education officials recommended surveillance testing. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends regular COVID testing.

Carroll County is the only school system in the Baltimore area that has ruled out routine testing.

“This was a staffing decision for Carroll County Public Schools,” said Carey Gaddis, a spokeswoman for the system. “We simply did not have the staff to accommodate the workload that would come with the surveillance testing.”

Baltimore City schools have decided to continue testing everyone in schools who isn’t vaccinated because of community support for the testing, said Jeremy Grant-Skinner, the system’s chief human capital officer.

“We are seeking to strike a balance between keeping students in-person and health and safety,” Grant-Skinner said.

Pool testing, which is offered by a number of companies approved by the state, is easy to do, but it is an imprecise tool that can identify many people at a time who are potentially infected. With pool testing, all of the students and staff in a classroom swipe their own noses with a cotton swab that is then put in one container or “pool.” If that pool tests positive, then everyone must get a follow-up test to see who in the pool has the virus.

“At least for a day, an entire group of students will need to isolate,” Grant-Skinner said. “We have worked with our testing vendors so we have quick follow-up testing.”

Students can return to school if they are negative. The school system has been doing the testing since February in its elementary and middle schools and has found that there is usually only one person who tests positive in the pool in subsequent testing.

Grant-Skinner said the testing will catch cases in people who are not exhibiting symptoms, thus reducing cases in the schools and the community over time.

Pool testing is most valuable when it can be done in communities with relatively low transmission rates because contact tracing isn’t as difficult, said Ryan Dienst, executive vice president with Mako Medical Laboratories in North Carolina. When test positivity rates are in the 10% range, he said, “It puts a lot of strain on public health resources.”

Dienst said his company is in discussions with about half a dozen school districts in Maryland to provide testing that involves staff or students, but has no signed contracts yet.

About half the school systems are focused on testing students and half on staff, he said. Those taking part in extracurricular activities also may be tested, he said.

“I think a lot of them are in a robust debate about what the strategies should be,” Dienst said.

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