Pennsylvania to offer weekly COVID-19 testing for schools

Rows of school buses

Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, Friday, July 10, 2020, in Zelienople, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Pennsylvania will offer voluntary COVID-19 testing in K-12 schools, state health and education officials announced Monday, promoting the effort as a way to keep the doors open for in-person learning amid a statewide resurgence of the coronavirus.

School districts will have to opt in, and parents must give consent to the weekly classroom testing, in which students’ nasal swabs will be pooled and evaluated together to detect the presence of COVID-19 in a school building. The statewide program will be available to all schools, public and private, with the exception of Philadelphia, which runs its own COVID-19 testing program.

Boston-based Concentric by Ginkgo Bioworks, which operates school-based programs in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Arizona, North Carolina and other states, was awarded an $87 million contract to run Pennsylvania’s program for the upcoming school year. The funds are coming from the state’s share of the federal coronavirus relief bill.

“Early detection like this is exactly what we need to keep students in classrooms, and COVID out,” Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said at a news conference in Enola.

Ginkgo executive Karen Hogan said that testing “helps interrupt transmission cycles as early as possible.” She called it a “nice, shallow swab” that most kids can administer themselves, with results available in one or two days.

The Health Department said there would be no repercussions for students who do not participate.

The state unveiled the testing program amid sharply rising infections and hospitalizations. Pennsylvania is averaging nearly 2,100 confirmed cases every day, up more than tenfold since early July but still a fraction of the COVID-19 infections that Pennsylvania was reporting in December, at the height of the pandemic and before vaccines became widely available. More than 1,100 people in Pennsylvania are in the hospital with COVID-19, the state reported Monday.

The surge is primarily among unvaccinated people, according to Beam.

Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, praised the testing program as a way to help school districts stay open and slow the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus.

But he predicted that reaction to it will vary from community to community, and be split along familiar partisan lines.

“We’re going to hear the same arguments about this that we heard about masking and vaccinations,” he said. “Superintendents and school board members are right back in the same hot seat as they were a year ago.”

Separately, Beam ordered vaccine providers on Monday to coordinate vaccine clinics at schools and universities that request them. The Health Department is also urging school districts to follow federal guidance and require masks for all students, teachers and staff, regardless of vaccination status, but Beam said a statewide mandate is not under discussion.

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