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Regional Interests

Alameda County’s Plan for School Reopening? Widespread Teacher Testing

The Alameda County Office of Education just signed a deal to provide timely COVID-19 testing of its teachers and staff. The testing will be available to the county’s 18 transitional kindergarten through 12th grade districts, as well as 12 authorized charter schools. The testing is an important step towards reassuring teachers, who have objected that without it schools can not safely reopen.

While some Bay Area private, parochial and charter schools have begun to reopen campuses to in-person classes for select students, many of the Bay Area’s largest districts have stuck with distance learning. Many public school teachers, as well as parents, have expressed concerns over the lack of enough timely COVID-19 tests to cover thousands of teachers who would need it in large districts.

Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Karen Monroe announced a deal Wednesday with COVID-19 testing company Curative Inc. to provide testing for school staff. The test is an oral test, using self-administered swabs. At school sites, an appointed staff member or nurse would witness the test being taken, return it to a sealed bag and hand it off for pick-up, according to Monroe. Results would be known in 48 hours.

The contract comes at little or no cost to Alameda County school districts and would be provided to all TK-12 and authorized charter schools. Other schools in Alameda would have the opportunity to sign on later.

The tests cost $100 each, and the testing company would bill teachers’ insurance providers directly. In March, California state officials said insurance providers will be responsible for covering the costs of testing essential workers.

“There is no cost to the districts, that’s essential,” Monroe said. “Particularly in these times of budget uncertainty at the state level and uncertainty for districts. What it’s going to mean for districts is the ability to get results that show that their employees are covered free and give the ability when there is a particular case to respond very quickly. This is at the [school] site level, the ability to actually administer tests, which I think is critical.”

The deal also covers community and court schools, like Butler Academic Academy, run by the Alameda County Office of Education.

Curative Inc. — which has already set up testing kiosks in Berkeley and Los Angeles — is currently working to provide tests to some schools in Texas, but this would be its first foray into working with California schools, according to a district spokesperson.

Both the state Department of Health and the Alameda County Public Health Department have recommended testing be in place before campuses reopen, and that at least 25% of all school staff be tested every two weeks — including teachers, paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, janitors, bus drivers or any other school employee that may have contact with students or other staff.

“Since the pandemic began, we’ve realized how important it is to have timely and accurate testing. And as we’ve come closer to considering when to open schools and how, testing is a critical element of that,” Monroe said. “And because I have the ability to be in meetings and hear conversations at the state level, it became very clear to me that we really did not have a good solution for this. So I began talking to different companies and potential partners to see if we could solve this problem.”

The move to procure enough testing is an important first step towards reassuring teachers that returning to campuses can be done safely. Other metrics that both parents and teachers are asking for are: adequate PPE, emergency contact tracing plans and deep cleaning plans, as well as clearly communicated plans for staggered drop-offs. Public health recommendations also include restricting classes to small cohorts of students who remain isolated during lunch, recess and bathroom breaks, as well as plans in place should an outbreak occur.

Schools and school districts may reopen for in-person instruction at any time if they are located counties that have not been on the county monitoring list within the prior 14 days.

According to data posted by the state Tuesday, Alameda and Santa Clara counties will join San Francisco in the orange tier — which allows schools to reopen physical classrooms — as long as they follow state guidance on how to do so safely. Several Bay Area teachers unions are pushing for worksite-specific COVID-19 prevention plans that show how schools will conduct timely testing and contact tracing as a condition of reopening.

The California Department of Public Health recommends surveillance testing be implemented based on the local disease trends, and if there is an increase in community transmission schools should increase testing to detect potential cases as lab testing capacity allows.

Monroe said the next step is to procure testing for students.

Copyright 2020 KQED