At a school board work session Tuesday, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia detailed plans to debut a coronavirus testing program next month that once fully in effect will test unvaccinated students, student-athletes and staff.
The testing, which a third-party provider will offer, will include PCR tests for a random pool of unvaccinated and asymptomatic students, and rapid antigen tests for unvaccinated student-athletes and staff. With the exception of athletes, the testing program for students will be opt-in, requiring parents or guardians to use a link to register their child to participate in testing.
The program will be implemented at a time the school system is seeing relatively few positive cases among students and staff. Between Sept. 16 and Oct. 14, the county identified 717 positive cases — 0.35% of the roughly 206,000 students and staff members currently in classrooms.
“We are glad here in October, as promised, as delivered, (we have) a full, comprehensive regional plan for immunizations and for testing in our schools,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand said at Tuesday’s school board work session. “And I’m proud of the work that this team has done to bring us to this moment.”
Fairfax plans to introduce the testing program gradually, so beginning the week of Nov. 1, the school system said, all unvaccinated contracted employees, as well as unvaccinated student-athletes, will submit to weekly testing.
The school system previously announced a vaccine requirement for staff, but workers were able to opt out as long as they agreed to be tested regularly. In a survey that 92% of contracted county employees responded to, 97% reported they received the coronavirus vaccine.
Student-athletes were also required to be vaccinated by Nov. 8, though medical and religious exemptions are permitted.
Elementary student testing is scheduled to begin the week of Nov. 8, and middle, high and center school student testing, in addition to testing for hourly employees like substitutes and coaches, will be implemented the week of Nov. 15.
The county said its program was crafted in alignment with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which recommends schools offer screening tests for unvaccinated students, teachers and staff once per week. CDC recommendations also call for weekly testing for high-risk sports and extracurricular activities.
According to a county presentation, the school system expects 11,000 to 12,000 students; 2,000 student-athletes; and 3,000 staff will be tested each week. Brabrand said if community transmission in the county falls to “low” according to CDC standards, the county has plans to stop the testing assessment.
At the work session, officials said the testing vendor has the ability to bill insurance and use federal grant funding to pay for the tests. It will be responsible for collecting a daily average of $4,450 per testing team through those means, and the school system will have to pay the balance if the daily minimum isn’t met.
Asked why the school system won’t use a test-to-stay program like has been introduced in places like Massachusetts, Brabrand said it’s something the county would consider if the CDC recommends it. This week, the agency said it’s considering the approach, CNN reported.
With regard to vaccines, the school system unveiled its efforts to facilitate vaccination for kids 5-11 once the vaccine receives emergency use authorization. It said it plans to promote vaccination at community vaccination sites and targeted vaccination clinics both during the school day and in the evening or on weekends, though those plans could change.
A parent survey that generated 35,801 responses revealed that 76% of parents said they plan to vaccinate their child, with parents saying their top choice is for their child’s doctor to administer the vaccine.
Brabrand said if the county’s vaccination effort is successful, transmission would be kept low, so the testing program can be put aside.
“If the mass vaccination campaign we just shared with you is successful over the next two months, and we see our COVID transmissions in the community go to low, this is something we would put on pause and only return if we saw transmission tick back up.”
At the same meeting, the school system said traditional snow days — a total of five — will be in place for the current school year. After those five days are used up, the school system will shift to unscheduled virtual learning days, whenever possible.