Delaware K-12 students can get weekly rapid antigen COVID-19 tests this fall

Coronavirus test sample

U.S. Army Capt. Kevin Messamer, a medical operations officer, prepares test samples from a mobile laboratory on May 4, 2020. (Jacqueline Marshall/U.S. Air National Guard)

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All Delaware public school districts are reopening to students this fall, after a mix of in-person and virtual learning last academic year.

To help administrators and teachers focus more on education, the state has partnered with an outside vendor to provide on-site coronavirus testing of students and staff statewide.

That means schools and districts who opt into the $15 million initiative will no longer have to rely on nursing staff or hire their own contractor.

Delaware is paying for the program with federal coronavirus relief money the state has received. The goal is weekly testing, but it won’t be mandated and students will first need parental permission. There is no cost to families.

For those who want regular or even periodic screening, the California-based Quidel Corporation will provide rapid antigen tests. It’s a half-inch deep nasal swab. That way those with a positive test can be isolated and samples then sent to a lab for confirmation — with a 24-hour turnaround time.

“By using both of these components, we’re able to offer both logistical ease and sensitivity for people who may be infectious with the virus,’’ Dr. Rick Pescatore, chief physician for the Delaware Division of Public Health, told WHYY. “And then we can couple that with specificity and ensure we don’t have any significant amount of false positives or any question as to the accuracy of these tests.”

Susan Bunting, Delaware Department of Education Secretary, says the rapid testing program “facilitates our quick identification of cases, which in turn will help keep our classrooms open to in-person learning.”

Sarah Bucic, vice president of advocacy for the state PTA, says she’s “glad to see that parental permission is required. It’s important for parents to be on board for this. Otherwise, this could be another thing that turns into something that is controversial.”

Purnima Montagne sits with her son Thejas
Incoming state PTA president Purnima Montagne, with her son Thejas, says copious oversight is needed. (Courtesy of Purnima Montagne)

Purnima Montagne, incoming president of the state PTA, has two kids in school. She says the program must be well-managed and clearly communicated to families. In addition, she is urging state and local health and education leaders to provide ample oversight, and the state auditor to keep an eye on how the money is spent.

“We all have to be hands-on in our particular schools to make sure that it’s working for our community and the juice is worth the squeeze,’’ Montagne said. “I hope it will be a model that can be adopted as one of many mitigation strategies to help returning to school be as normal as possible.”

Jon Cooper, who oversees wellness programs for the 10,000-student Colonial District in the Wilmington and New Castle areas, calls the testing “one of our layers of mitigation” as well as a “basic responsibility” for schools as they aim to restrict the spread of COVID-19.

Colonial is piloting the program in three schools this summer and Cooper says it’s going well. The real test, however, will be when more than 9,000 students return to its 15 schools. So far only about 700 kids have opted for virtual learning this year, Cooper said, so the buildings will be bustling.

“It’s all going to depend on the load on the labs in terms of timeliness of tests,” Cooper said. “That was an issue months ago. I’m cautiously optimistic that that load is going to be manageable.”

Two other schools are in the pilot program but all 350 public schools and their 140,000 students would be eligible,

Quidel CEO Douglas Bryant said that “vigilance in testing is the surest way to detect COVID-19 infections early and a crucial tool to help limit potential spread. Every day that we shut coronavirus down will be a day that we keep Delaware classrooms open.” 

Schools and families can learn more about the program at www.dhsscovidschooltest.com. Questions about testing can also be directed to DPH Richard.Pescatore@delaware.gov.

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