As the Charlottesville area experiences a surge in COVID-19 cases, city school division officials want to start testing groups of students.
However, that program won’t start until the Virginia Department of Health finalizes contracts with outside contractors to do the test. That’s expected to happen by next month.
In the meantime, the school system is working to gather consent forms from families and staff members who want to participate in the free testing program. Charlottesville officials have spent months planning for the testing program,
Charlottesville is one of several school divisions that have opted into the state testing program that’s aimed at identifying potential outbreaks early and preventing cases from spreading. The voluntary program will include regularly scheduled COVID tests at each school of people students and staff members who aren’t currently showing symptoms. Those interested can fill out an online form.
“For some people, proactive testing is also a relief, a periodic check to know that you or your child doesn’t have COVID,” the division said on its website. “Remember, pooled testing is only one strategy — we will continue to mask, require daily screening for symptoms/risk factors, keep our upgraded ventilation systems in good working order, follow protocols, and more.”
Having a random screening test in place is one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended strategies for containing the spread of the virus in schools. However, at the urging of local medical professionals, not all school divisions in the area — including Albemarle County — are implementing a testing program.
So far, Charlottesville and Albemarle school divisions have not seen evidence of the virus spreading within the school buildings. Officials attribute the lack of spreading to the several mitigation measures in place, such as mask requiring and improving ventilation. Additionally, no outbreaks of COVID-19 have been reported in schools within the Blue Ridge Health District.
Statewide, 33 schools are experiencing COVID outbreaks, according to VDH data.
Last week, Albemarle County reported 41 cases in the schools, and Charlottesville reported 25 new cases — the most of the school year thus far for both school systems.
Currently, 236 Albemarle students and two staff members are quarantining because of a possible exposure to COVID-19.
The school division is currently collecting consent forms from interested families who want their children tested. Through the form, families can agree to the random testing as well as diagnostic testing in case a student or staff member is showing symptoms or was exposed.
The form and more information about the program are available online at charlottesvilleschools.org/COVID-testing. All students and staff members are encouraged to participate, regardless of vaccination status.
A group of people will be tested weekly together — meaning the samples they provide will be combined into one sample that will actually be tested for COVID. If the result is positive, then each person will be tested individually.
One of the tests, called a polymerase chain reaction test, will involve “a shallow swab” that the division described as “less invasive than a child picking their nose.” This test is often referred to as a PCR test.
The school division said on its website that the testing program will start as soon as the Virginia Department of Health finalizes contracts with third-party vendors to do the testing. That’s expected to happen by next month.
The testing vendor will determine the frequency of testing as well as how many students and staff members will be tested.
The state recommends testing five to 25 people as part of one group, and Charlottesville officials said the goal is to test 10 to 20% of a school a week.
“If an elementary school has, for example, 300 students, then we try to test at least 30-60 students per week, or if we decide to rotate testing among schools, we would test as many people as possible at at least one elementary school each week,” officials explained on the website. “
At Buford Middle and Walker Upper Elementary schools, the goal would be at least 60 to 120 students per week, and 100 to 250 students at Charlottesville High School.
“If every student in a school has permission to be tested, then each student could be expected to be tested at least once every 5-10 weeks,” the division said.
Families will be notified if their student is selected for the random testing pool. They should learn the results within 24 hours, according to the website.
For those who have been exposed to the virus or develop COVID symptoms, the division also will provide access to a free, 15-minute rapid antigen test, BinaxNOW. That test also uses the shallow swab.
“While the BinaxNOW test is fast and useful, it is not as accurate as a PCR test, and symptomatic people testing negative on the rapid test should still follow up with a healthcare provider for guidance,” the division said on its website.