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DC Public Schools will provide on-site rapid testing to anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19 when staff and elementary students return to campus in November for in-person learning. If someone tests negative, they’d have to take a diagnostic test (RT-PCR test), seeing as there is a chance of a false negative with rapid results.
But why not test asymptomatic individuals, if more evidence is suggesting a person without symptoms can carry just as much coronavirus in their nose, throat, and lungs as someone with symptoms? Research suggests anywhere between 30 to 40 percent of people with coronavirus experience no symptoms at all.
In a press conference on Thursday, DC Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt explains that D.C. has not developed a surveillance strategy, as a few states have. For example, New York City is randomly testing 10 to 20 percent of a school’s population each month. She says D.C. is not following a plan like New York City’s because there is no data yet to suggest it reduces transmission. Instead, D.C. is focused on other strategies, like updating all its elementary schools’ HVAC systems by Nov. 9, she says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is not yet known if entry testing or universal one-time testing can reduce transmission, so it offers no specific recommendation at this time. But the CDC says school districts should consider repeat testing of randomly selected asymptomatic staff and students in areas where the risk of transmission is moderate to high. Meaning areas where the number of new cases is 20 per 100,000 people within the last 14 days.
DC Health and DCPS did not immediately respond to this reporter’s question on whether they’d change their strategy should cases in the city increase. As of Oct. 21, D.C. saw 7.54 cases per 100,000 people.
Dr. Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, thinks D.C.’s current testing strategy is a “good” and “reasonable” one, especially if it is one mitigation strategy of many that includes ventilation and social distancing. D.C.’s testing strategy also makes sense given financial and logistical constraints, says Gronvall: Rapid testing is cheaper but less reliable than PCR testing, and rapid testing is only authorized for symptomatic use. (On Thursday, Mayor Muriel Bowser said DCPS is using rapid tests D.C. already has, so is not budgeting more money for schools as it relates to testing.)
“I think what is going to be most important is that the school has a well thought out plan and is open to adapting it as more information comes in,” says Gronvall.
She recommends government officials be clear about the possibility that the testing strategy might change should cases increase and if more data becomes available. The critical part will also be what a school does when someone tests positive. According to an Oct. 5 presentation, only the school community with a positive case will be notified, not the entire city.
It’s unclear if everyone is satisfied with DCPS’ testing strategy. One DCPS educator City Paper spoke with wishes DCPS adopted a strategy similar to Los Angeles, where the school district is testing students and staff before returning and performing tests on a regular basis as recommended by health experts. She also points out that the CDC guidance recommends “placing a higher priority for testing in schools that serve populations experiencing a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 cases or severe disease.” She suspects these are the same DCPS students returning to school in November.
The Washington Teachers’ Union is also recommending that “all staff receive a negative test prior to re-entering a school and that regular testing be available, free of charge, to all school-based staff,” according to a spokesperson for the union.
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