School Districts Are Still Trying To Secure Enough COVID Tests For Students

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ITHACA, NY (WSKG) – Most students across the region are already in their third school year under the pandemic. However, some school districts are trying to keep up with testing capacity to comply with new state guidance, which for many districts came the Friday before the first day of school.

Students involved in certain “higher risk” extracurricular activities, like this recent soccer game against Elmira, are required to get tested weekly as a condition of their participation. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

Part of that guidance suggests districts try to prioritize regular testing for unvaccinated students and those who participate in activities where social distancing and mask wearing is not always possible, like athletics or marching band.

Horseheads Superintendent Thomas Douglas said his district has enough tests to do the required weekly testing for the roughly 100 teachers and district staff who are still unvaccinated. But, at a school board meeting last week, Douglas explained the testing capacity for students is not where he wants it to be.

“I’d love to be able to [test] our whole school, but you’re talking, you know, 5,000 tests a week. We do not have that capacity,” Douglas said.

Like many districts, Horseheads was doing COVID-19 testing last year, too, albeit at lower levels. This year, many more students are back in school at the same time, which means the district has to be prepared to offer tests to about three times more students compared to last school year.

Douglas estimated the district is only able to test about a tenth of the total student body.

While the cost of testing supplies is covered by state and federal grants, Douglas said his district is limited by a lack of access to people qualified to administer those tests.

Out of Chemung County’s three major school districts – Horseheads, Elmira City and Elmira Heights – only Elmira City is registered to conduct onsite COVID-19 testing as a limited service laboratory.

Douglas said even if his district was registered, it would not have sufficient school nursing staff to handle day-to-day student health concerns while also conducting hundreds or thousands of weekly tests.

“The superintendents in the three school districts are really asking for the county to step up with the $2.5 million they have to consider staffing, that each district has someone there to do those tests,” Douglas said.

Chemung County health officials did not respond to interview requests, as of Sunday afternoon.

Meanwhile, surveillance testing is suggested, but not mandated by the state. However, Douglas urged parents to sign consent forms allowing their students to get tested.

Testing a large proportion of the student body, not just the symptomatic, would help the school avoid a potential shutdown, Douglas said.

In New York, the vaccination rate for people under the age of 18 is about 17 percent. Of those children who are eligible, only about half are fully vaccinated.