School Board OKs student COVID tests

School Board OKs student COVID tests
George Washington Middle School (S. Stanton for Visit Alexandria)

By Olivia Anderson |

The Alexandria School Board approved routine COVID-19 surveillance testing for students at its Sept. 9 meeting. The board also passed a motion to consider policy at the next meeting on Sept. 23 that would propose a stricter vaccine mandate for Alexandria City Public Schools employees.

According to ACPS staff, the surveillance testing will randomly test 30% of the student population to determine infection rates. The volunteer weekly testing program will be provided by a third party and will take place on campus.

“When you think about our students and offering this at every site, it is quite complicated logistically. We are also talking about high numbers … this would be a voluntary program, and no one would be required to do this testing,” Julie Crawford, ACPS chief of student services and equity, said. “Throughout this process, even though we’re seeking an outside vendor so that we can begin immediately, we are continuing to talk to VDH and work out that process so that when ViSSTA is up and running we can go over to that.”

ACPS has been working with the Virginia Department of Health since June on ViSSTA, the student COVID-19 testing program, but the program will not be ready to use for a few weeks. In the meantime, ACPS is currently pursuing COVID-19 testing through an outside vendor.

Staff said on Sept. 9 that the district is in talks with various possible vendors and could finalize the contract by as early as this week, though ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D. pointed out that implementing new positions and contact tracers takes time.

“We have to find those individuals and we have to make sure we have responsible people who are trained because you can do one thing wrong and it could be a disaster,” Hutchings said. “It can’t just be anybody who wants to come and volunteer to do this kind of work. We have been putting a lot on our administrators as well as our central office staff to just make it through these contact tracing incidents right now, but we do have help on the way. It has just taken time to hire those positions and I wanted to make that clear.”

During the Sept. 9 meeting, the board discussed the specifics of the new screening program. Board member Christopher Suarez expressed support for the program overall, specifically that it will be taking place at school buildings, but questioned where the 30% figure comes from.

Dr. Anne Gaddy, deputy director of the Alexandria Health Department, said that this threshold is the public health recommendation and is thought to be both realistic and feasible.

“If you’re [testing] on a repetitive basis and you’re doing at least 30%, then you’re having a good chance of being able to catch a significant number of positives that you might not otherwise have captured,” Gaddy said. “That’s considered to be a percentage that yields reasonable results, also with realizing that in most settings it might not be feasible to do 100% of the population that you’re looking at all the time.”

Suarez asked whether the 30% needs to be a representative sample of the student population in order to be most effective.

“If you have an opt-in sample, that is not representative of the population. I’m concerned that data won’t be as useful,” Suarez said.

Gaddy responded that when it comes to most accurately picking up on the spread of disease, it’s important to gather data from 30% of the entirety of any given space or system.

“So, if you’re doing 30% of ACPS but that 30% is coming only out of two schools, that doesn’t tell you anything about the other schools. Similarly, if you’re doing the 30% within a school but you’re doing that out of one set of classrooms or one grade, that’s not telling you anything about the rest of your population. As much as possible you want those individuals you’re testing to be spread out through the physical space that’s interacting with each other,” Gaddy said.

Board member Ramee Gentry, seconded by Suarez, made the motion to approve the testing program. The motion passed 8-0, with board Vice Chair Veronica Nolan absent.

According to staff, next steps include communicating with families and staff about the program, partnering with AHD to provide vaccinations beginning with secondary schools this month and continuing conversations with VDH on the ViSSTA program.

However, during the meeting’s public comment period, some parents argued ACPS should be doing more. Many echoed sentiments in favor of outdoor lunches to combat the spread.

Public speaker Meghan Crimmins expressed “serious concerns” about the district’s current COVID-19 mitigation policies after her 11-year-old son, unable to be vaccinated, was exposed to the virus and will now be out of school for the duration of his 14-day quarantining period.

“With the spread of [the] Delta [variant], plans made earlier in the year absolutely must be reexamined. Indoor lunch, especially for unvaccinated middle school students, poses by far the most significant COVID risk facing our schools,” Crimmins said. “Any other mitigation steps being taken are essentially being undone by convening, in the case of [George Washington Middle School], some 500 unvaccinated, unmasked individuals in an enclosed space without any controlled cohorts and insufficient spacing between students.”

Another parent, Heather Ashburn, said that immediately enforcing outdoor lunches would be a great way to “cheaply and effectively” reduce transmission risks and increase safety precautions.

“This rapid policy shift will take a surge in resources both for planning and execution,” Ashburn said. “This short-term risk mitigation investment will be worth it to help all of our young children.”

If implemented, ACPS, which enrolls approximately 16,000 students, would follow the footsteps of Fairfax County, which announced at its Sept. 9 meeting that new safety precautions will involve holding more lunches outdoors, in gymnasiums and in foyers.

As another way to reduce the risk of transmission, board members discussed the possibility of requiring a stricter vaccine mandate for ACPS staff that would require all ACPS employees to receive the vaccine barring valid medical or religious exemptions.

The conversation follows a similar one from the board’s Aug. 19 meeting, in which members discussed the timeline of an in-house testing program for unvaccinated teachers. The lengthy discussion included some members arguing for a faster rollout and others arguing that efficiency takes time. At the time, the board ultimately landed on an Aug. 30 start date to roll out the testing program. Unvaccinated employees now upload test results once a week from third party companies while staff finishes developing its program.

Currently, 84% of ACPS’ 2,200 employees reported being vaccinated as of early September.

This could quickly change if a stricter mandate is enacted at the next meeting, as other districts around the nation are beginning to do. Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the largest school districts in the country, recently voted to require COVID-19 vaccinations for children ages 12 and up.

“It seems to me it’s quite obvious; you have to choose if you want to remain employed with the school system, then you get vaccinated. That’s what we do when they say, ‘No we won’t’ and don’t have a good excuse,” board member Margaret Lorber said at the Sept. 9 meeting.

Suarez made a motion to provide policy at the next board meeting on Sept. 23 that requires staff vaccination “to the fullest extent of the law,” which board member Jacinta Greene seconded. The board passed it unanimously, but Hutchings said staff would need time to mull it over.

“I think we’re all in agreement that we want our staff vaccinated,” Hutchings said. “I think it’s important for us to be able to work through the legal implications that go along with it.”