Your Views: Test for COVID-19 in schools

Your Views: Test for COVID-19 in schools
One of the Alexandria Health Department's COVID-19 testing sites. (Photo/Denise Dunbar)

To the editor:

With the support of many ACPS families, I call for the Alexandria School Board to conduct an immediate special meeting to implement a COVID-19 testing program for the student body. This is a safety issue; it cannot wait for the next scheduled meeting on Sept. 9.

COVID-19 has already infected children attending multiple ACPS schools after only four days of in-person learning. The pernicious Delta variant – capable of being transmitted even by vaccinated persons – is spreading, and community transmission is high here.

Routine student testing is a defense we lack. Virginia has been granted $257 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Reopening Schools Grant” for this purpose, and the city provides free testing for residents through Curative kiosks around town. The ACPS “Health and Safety Guidance” web page, which includes its plan for COVID-19 mitigation measures, lists efforts for asymptomatic and symptomatic COVID-19 testing among students as simply “pending.”

The School Board voted to return kids to school early this year – before Labor Day – apparently without a complete plan to protect students from the Delta variant. As the most densely populated city in the Commonwealth, it is inexcusable that ACPS did not have a testing program for our students in place on their first day of in-person learning.

As the CDC and Virginia Department of Health recommend, we request ACPS conduct:

Surveillance testing of a small percentage of students on a rotating basis, such as 5% weekly, to identify asymptomatic cases and implement quarantine/contact tracing protocols.

Screening testing of students returning to school after an illness to provide proof of a negative test to restart in-person learning.

Arlington County and Baltimore City Public Schools are among the many school districts that have already implemented testing among the student population.

I call on you to establish this program in partnership with the Alexandria Health Department to add to our COVID-19 defenses for children in schools as a tool to reduce illness, community transmission and death.

A substantial portion of the ACPS student population is too young for a COVID-19 vaccine. Without a testing program, only hand washing and masking are protecting these most vulnerable children from the Delta variant because distancing is not available in most ACPS settings.

Data from the ACPS testing program will offer meaningful insight into viral spread patterns throughout the community. Arresting viral spread among ACPS’s families is a critical step to reduce the risk of school closures.

Maintaining an uninterrupted school schedule will give our kids the structure they lacked last year and offer parents and caregivers more time to work and participate in our local community. All of this leads to a stronger, more resilient economy for our city.

Some schools in the D.C. Metro region have already been forced to return to online learning. Meanwhile, a child under the age of 9 died from COVID-19 in Northern Virginia last week, the youngest pandemic victim in the region to date. It is the School Board’s duty to use all available tools to protect our children from this virus now.

We are grateful schools have reopened. We recognize that ACPS leadership prepared extensively for the school year. But conditions have changed since those preparations began, and ACPS leadership must adjust.

No one wants to see a return of the restrictions of 2020. The sooner we implement this program, the better prepared we are to continue uninterrupted, sustainable in-person learning despite the inevitable appearance of additional virus strains.

-Amy Hillis, Alexandria