As COVID-19 cases continue to increase, the Blue Ridge Health District is once again ramping up testing efforts, but local school systems are taking different approaches to the question of whether to test students in school buildings.
Currently, Albemarle County doesn’t have plans to test students for COVID-19 while Charlottesville is exploring a state testing program that would test groups of students at once, which officials say is a more efficient system but the logistics of which are still being worked out.
Charlottesville is one of 60 school districts participating in the state program through the Virginia Department of Health and Virginia Department of Education, State Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver said in an interview Friday.
“This is really important because containing any kind of spread of the disease, the sooner you can isolate someone who has tested positive, you prevent them from being able to spread it to others,” Oliver said. “So doing these pool testing things will allow the schools to feel a little more confident.”
As part of the program, an outside contractor will test a group of people 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. Oliver said that approach is more efficient, especially given the smaller number of cases in schools last year.
The Blue Ridge Health District said Friday that in conjunction with the University of Virginia Medical Center, it would offer free COVID tests in the Charlottesville area five days a week to meet local demand. UVa is offering tests Monday nights at The Church of the Incarnation and Tuesdays at Mount Zion First African Baptist Church. On the other three days of the week, BRHD staff will be in the parking lot outside the former JC Penney at Fashion Square mall.
BRHD only will contact people who test positive. For more information, visit vdh.virginia.gov/blue-ridge/covid-19-tjhd-testing-sites.
Screening testing — random testing of people who show no symptoms or have had no known exposure to the virus — is one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended strategies to reduce the virus’ spread in school buildings. That’s because testing helps to identify positive cases, allowing officials to quickly isolate those individuals.
Based on the advice of local medical professionals, Albemarle County officials have said they aren’t looking to test students and staff members.
Dr. Jeff Vergales, a UVa pediatric cardiologist who is part of the group of local pediatricians advising school systems, said that testing students regularly would require significant resources — including a quick, accurate test that doesn’t exist — but would provide little benefit, if any.
Tests that provide rapid results aren’t as accurate and give a false positive about 50% of the time, Vergales said.
“All the other layered mitigation schools are doing are drastically more important than the test, because the test is [like finding] a needle in the haystack,” he said. “But you are better off from a mindset standpoint just assuming that every single kid that walks in that door has COVID because you are going to double down on the mitigation strategies to reduce the likelihood of spread.”
Testing programs are more effective and feasible when officials are trying to create a COVID-free bubble, similar to the strategies used for in-person classes by the Blue Ridge School, a private boarding school, Vergales said. However, for schools where students and staff are leaving school each day and going back out in the community, a bubble is not not possible.
“The only ones that really have been successful are the ones that are smaller and spent a lot of money to bring in companies to help them do their own testing,” he said.
He added that random testing is a more effective tool when the prevalence of the disease in the community is around 3% to 5%.
“Think about that number; that’s a really high number,” he said. “That means that of any kid that you’re testing in Albemarle County, you would expect 5% of them to come back positive. Even with what’s going on right now in the Blue Ridge Health District with our rates, you’re not even at a fraction of that right now.”
Echoing Vergales, Beth Baptist, acting director of human resources and students services for Charlottesville City Schools, said testing every student regularly would be “a major undertaking.”
Throughout the last year, city School Board members have expressed interest in some form of testing program, which was reiterated at the board’s meeting Aug. 5.
“We’re trying to be as proactive as we can and we want our parents to know that we are doing everything we can to keep their children and all of the adults safe,” Baptist said.
Baptist said the school system still is awaiting guidance from VDH and VDOE on how exactly to set up the group testing program, including on how to get required consent from families and educating them about the testing process.
“As we know more, we will certainly be giving more information to our families who want this done,” Baptist said. “… We don’t want to send too much information now until we’ve got some of the questions that we’ve asked answered.”
School divisions participating in the program are responsible for identifying the groups for testing, coordinating the collection of consent forms, providing space and time for testing, implementing any related guidance and complying with the reporting requirements, according to the program’s website.
Baptist said the test wouldn’t involve a long nasal swab that was a hallmark of the initial COVID tests, which were polymerase chain reaction tests.
“We want to make sure that families know that it’s not considered a quick test, but it’s not PCR,” Baptist said. “… Hopefully, we won’t have the kids scared to death of it.”