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Philly Area Schools Prepare to Test Students for COVID-19

With an eye toward returning to in-person learning, several school districts in the Southeastern PA/ Philadelphia area have begun, or are looking to begin, voluntary, routine testing of all students and faculty for the COVID-19 virus. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), in connection with local health departments, have been working on a program known as “ACE-IT” (Assisting Childhood Education through Increased Testing) which will enable local area school districts to perform weekly COVID-19 testing of staff and students. The hope is that by conducting these tests, the program can help provide a safer environment for students and teachers to return to the classroom, which many have argued is a more effective teaching environment than virtual teaching.

What are Some of the Schools Participating?

The Lower Merion and North Penn school districts in Montgomery County, as well as the Delaware County Intermediate Unit, have been some of the first school districts to participate in the testing program, which is modeled after a similar public health initiative launched in Texas back in the fall.

North Penn volunteered to participate in the CHOP program and has been successfully running the pilot testing program for its teachers and staff since last month. Lower Merion has been doing “hybrid” instruction and is currently (as of February 9, 2021) testing about 1,000 staff members and students a week through the ACE-IT assurance testing program.

Meanwhile, Mastery Schools, a network of charter schools in Philadelphia and Camden, is also readying a program in partnership with the Broad Institute, that will enable it to weekly test its more than 14,000 teachers, staff, and students. The schools have been operating virtually, but plan to re-open with the weekly testing in place in March. The testing will be free, will require parental consent, and families can opt-in or out from being tested.

How Will These Tests Help Students get Back in the Classroom?

Since many schools opened around the country, none have reported any major outbreaks of the virus. Furthermore, there is evidence which suggests that schools have not typically been a significant source of COVID-19 spread. However, as schools open, there have been staffing issues as some teachers and others have been exposed to COVID-19 and forced to quarantine themselves, leaving schools to scramble with limited staff. The desire is that by implementing weekly testing, a certain level of comfort and confidence that in-person school is safe to attend will be provided by reducing opportunities for transmission, as well as allow schools to “catch” those positive with the COVID-19 virus but who are asymptomatic sooner rather than later.

According to the CDC, screening testing is particularly valuable in areas with moderate, substantial, and high levels of community transmission. Some schools may consider using pooled testing as a screening testing strategy for students. Pooled testing involves mixing several samples from different individuals together in a “batch” or pooled sample, then testing the pooled sample with a diagnostic test. If this test comes back positive, then the individuals in the pool are tested separately. This approach can increase the number of individuals that can be tested while reducing the need for testing resources. The ACE-IT program plans to utilize both routine assurance testing and rapid COVID-19 testing for those students and staff who begin to show or feel symptoms of COVID-19 during the school day.

How Much Will These Tests Cost?

For now, the CHOP plan is to provide various districts with the tests at no cost to those individual districts. According to their website, Mastery Schools will provide the testing for free, and will not bill insurance nor seek payment for the testing. CHOP is hopeful that as its pilot program continues to be successful, it will be able to expand upon it, with the goal of developing a model that others can use and incorporate into schools who are eager to give students, parents, and teachers some reassurance as they head back to the classroom.

If you are a charter school and require legal assistance, contact the legal team at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser today. Call us at 484-318-7106 or contact us online to get started. Located in West Chester, Pennsylvania, we serve clients throughout the Philadelphia area, Chester County, and New Jersey.