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D.C. will randomly test 10 percent of students for coronavirus each week

Students at Ketcham Elementary School wait to enter the building in Southeast Washington last month.
Students at Ketcham Elementary School wait to enter the building in Southeast Washington last month. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
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The District will begin testing a random sampling of students learning in person at public schools for the coronavirus every week — a strategy that D.C. officials say is aligned with CDC guidelines recommending frequent testing in schools as a way to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Health and education officials said they plan to test 10 percent of students at traditional public and charter schools. Parents must consent for their children to participate in the testing program.

Charter schools must be offering at least four days of in-person learning a week to qualify for the testing program.

The city currently tests students every other week if their families have opted into the asymptomatic testing program. Parents and teachers say that program has been marred by testing delays and inconsistencies, with the city’s health department not always dispatching adequate staff to test students at each school.

The new testing program, which will begin on March 15, is similar to the one employed in New York City and would provide a snapshot of the infection rate in schools, raising red flags if the infection rate in a school is higher than the neighborhood that surrounds it. But it would not test every student, potentially missing an asymptomatic student in a class. 

Schools will continue to provide rapid coronavirus testing to any student or staff member who displays symptoms on campus. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that testing is just one part of effective mitigation efforts in schools. Schools should also have social distancing, mask mandates and adequate ventilation in place, the agency says.

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“I am confident these changes to our testing protocol will increase confidence in reopening our schools and will continue to reinforce the strong health and safety commitments of DC Public Schools,” city officials wrote in a letter to school system principals last week.

City officials rolled out the original asymptomatic testing in early December, when a few hundred students were learning in school buildings. The school system now serves around 10,000 students in person, though attendance is inconsistent and some students are attending just once a week. By the end of the month, the charter sector is expected to serve 9,000 students in person.

In all, the city says it completed 3,856 student coronavirus tests, with a positivity rate of 1.15 percent.

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Current testing protocol requires the District’s health department to dispatch staff to every school once every other week to administer students’ tests. But parents and teachers said there were instances in which not enough staff were sent to test students, resulting in some classrooms waiting more than two weeks between testing dates.

The health department and office of the deputy mayor of education said that in rare instances when this happened, they split testing over two days. Snow days and the fact that students don’t attend school every day have also complicated the testing schedules, they say.

Under the randomized testing program, on-site nursing staff will administer the tests.

Epernay Kyles, a kindergarten teacher at Seaton Elementary School, said one of her students recently tested positive for the virus, putting the entire class in quarantine for two weeks. That case was detected through asymptomatic testing.

She said that not every classroom at her school was able to be tested that day because of staff shortages.

“I personally freaked out because I had a student in my class test positive,” Kyles said. “We would have been in school with that asymptomatic student if they hadn’t been tested.”

The city has also made changes to its testing of school staff. Initially, the city mailed out about 4,000 home testing kits every 10 days to traditional public and charter school staff. But teachers took to social media and said that after the first round of tests, subsequent kits either didn’t arrive or were delayed. Officials said the problem was caused by technical glitches that have been addressed.

Most staff members working in schools are fully vaccinated, and the office of the deputy mayor of education and health officials said that just 15 percent of tests were used and sent back.

Now the city said it is no longer automatically sending these testing kits to staff, but employees can opt in to the program.

“Staff will not be required to complete the test,” officials said in an emailed statement, “but are encouraged to utilize the convenience offered by this at-home method.”