Maryland’s health and education departments are encouraging schools to expand COVID-19 testing programs in the fall and offering to help pay — a total of $182 million from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The money would fund routine testing in public and private schools to catch coronavirus cases as early as possible.
“We are encouraging them to sign up to participate in this program,” said Jon Weinstein, director of the Maryland COVID-19 Recovery Program. “It’s an important program in our continued fight against COVID-19, especially for the under 12 [year old] students who can’t be vaccinated yet.”
Schools in Baltimore City, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties were the only ones in the region last school year that regularly tested unvaccinated students and staff, whether or not they had symptoms. Sixteen of the state’s 24 school systems, including those in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties, also offered swift diagnostic testing of students and staff who showed symptoms.
By May, the city school system was conducting 15,000 tests weekly on students and staff, using individual saliva tests in high schools and pool tests in elementary and middle schools. Pool tests combine swabs from about a dozen people, and if a positive result is found those individuals get further tests.
The Baltimore testing program was estimated to cost $15 million over the course of a year, most of which came from the school system budget. City school officials hoped to reduce the chance the virus would spread within the school community if they caught people without symptoms.
The state is asking public and non-public schools to apply to receive CDC funding for the screening tests to help make schools safer. Less than half of school children going back to school likely will have been vaccinated by early fall. A vaccine for children under age 12 isn’t expected until the fall or winter.
The Evening Sun
Both the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have issued guidance in the past two weeks saying school-based screening tests could be an important element in safely returning to school.
Maryland Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader said in a press release that his department “strongly encourages K-12 schools to request these funds and put in place a robust testing program to protect students, teachers, and staff during this upcoming school year.”
To encourage participation in the screening program, the state plans to hire vendors to conduct the testing and advise on follow-up procedures that include isolation of those infected and those in direct contact, Weinstein said. The schools also can use their own vendors and be reimbursed, so the programs are likely to look different in each community, he said.
The idea is to get those with an infection out of the classroom to prevent spread but keep schools open to as many healthy students as is safe. The highly contagious delta variant could mean infections spread quickly through those in close contact, Weinstein said.
Weinstein said those schools that want to continue diagnostic testing of students with symptoms can use a separate state program, one used by many jurisdictions in the spring.
He also encouraged students to get vaccinated when they become eligible.
“Testing is an important part of the fight, but the most important thing for people is to get out and get vaccinated,” he said. “Older kids can be vaccinated now and we expect more of them to do so this summer before school starts. The statistics are stark and clear, those unvaccinated are at much higher risk.”