D.C. Public Schools students will be automatically enrolled in the city’s random coronavirus testing program unless the student, parent or guardian opts out, Mayor Muriel Bowser said Friday.
That goes for students at all DCPS schools as well as public charter schools participating in the District’s testing program.
Previously, parents needed to opt-in by way of a consent form.
The move goes into effect Monday, the first day of classes.
Parents, educators and council members have for months urged the city to improve its testing program for schools, citing an audit from March that revealed the city only tested 4% of students attending in-person classes. The audit found that less than half of the 10,000 students who attended school in-person had the consent forms on file.
Now, the forms are no longer an obstacle to testing in city schools, officials said.
D.C. Health had previously told the council it recommends testing a random sample of 10% of asymptomatic students per week.
A news release described the testing to be used in schools as “non-invasive, saliva-based PCR test. Instead of a nasal swab, students will hold a small vial with a funnel attached and produce a saliva sample.”
“Participating schools will aim to test a random sample of 10-20% of asymptomatic students, targeting unvaccinated students. Students that develop symptoms of COVID-19 while at school will also be eligible for symptomatic testing.”
Parents, guardians and students 18 and older can opt-out of their consent online.
When previously asked why an opt-out model wasn’t under consideration, Bowser said there wouldn’t be a way to test children without parental consent.
In response to a question about the change, a spokesman for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education told WTOP in an email that “The change to an opt-out model was made to significantly increase participation in the District’s COVID-19 school-based testing program while simultaneously reducing administrative burdens and barriers to testing for schools, students and families.”
Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen said the testing change is “critically important.”
“If we want good testing, if we want good surveillance in our schools, then we’ve got to have as many people as possible participating in that testing, and moving it to an opt-out, rather than an opt-in, will help guarantee much better participation,” Allen said.
The council member also saw the increase in the percentage of students to be tested as a positive because it adds more people to the testing pool.
“And if we care about kids’ health, if we care about, especially, the unvaccinated student population, that they are able to be able to be confident and their parents are confident going into that school setting, you’ve got to have a really robust surveillance program,” Allen said.
He added that it makes a big difference in being able to have the number of people be tested via a much larger proportion.
Jessica Sutter, the Ward 6 representative to the D.C. State Board of Education, told WTOP that the expanded testing was “a good thing for public health.”
“I think it’s a good thing for ensuring that we are able to test high percentages of students across all schools.”
Sutter said she was confused about the switch, though.
“What I understood from prior information from the mayor’s team was that there was legal precedent that all medical procedures involving minors had to be opt-in,” she said. “So I’m curious what changed in the legal precedent, or whether there was an assumption that it would be a nasal swab test, and now that it’s a saliva test, that became clearer, that since there’s no invasion into a child’s person, that that’s different.”
Bowser’s office and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which will be handling COVID testing, made the announcement.
DCPS won’t budge on virtual learning
Officials with the mayor’s office were asked multiple times about expanding virtual learning options for DCPS during a call with D.C. council members on Friday.
In a letter earlier this week, the D.C. State Board of Education urged city leaders to consider a virtual option for those who want it.
Paul Kihn, Deputy mayor for education, said the District grants virtual learning by means of medical exemptions only, and that won’t be changing.
He said D.C.’s position on the issue “is based on a couple of really important factors.”
“Firstly, just the critical importance of in-person learning for academic, social, emotional and mental well being. And this has been clear from the (Centers for Disease Control), the American Association of Pediatrics, our own D.C. Department of Health. We believe that in-person learning is safe for young people,” Kihn said.
He added that national and local data show there is a consequence for young people being out of school.
“We are reopening our schools for all children, we are ensuring that we are providing in person learning for everyone, we’re not providing an option for families that want it not to be there because we think it’s vital,” Kihn said.
He said that, if they’re needed, “all of our schools actually have robust virtual learning plans.”
Meanwhile, Allen said, it’s important for schools to have a plan in place in the event of multiple positive coronavirus cases.
“It’s not a question of if there’s going to be a positive COVID test in the school,” Allen said. “It’s just a matter of when, and parents need to know with certainty: How’s it going to be communicated? What are the protocols and policies in place? What are the expectations for them?”
WTOP’s Scott Gelman contributed to this story.