Teachers Raise Alarm Over COVID Testing Delays

Even though the United States is in its third school year following the COVID-19 outbreak, the latest surge seems to have caught many districts by surprise. Schools across the country are reporting the highest number of positive cases since the outbreak.

During the first week after the winter break, Boston Public Schools (BPS) reported1,787 positive COVID-19-related cases, both staff and students. To put this in perspective: BPS reported539 cases total for the 2020-21 school year. Schools in Portland, Oregon resumed classes on January 4th. nearly 3,150 students and over 560 staffDue to suspected or confirmed COVID infection, they had to be isolated. These numbers may not be accurate for Portland due to a backlog in data entry. As of January 29, Chicago Public Schools, (CPS), were tracking. 4,186 positive cases686 employees and nearly 19,000 students were held in quarantine. In the 2020-21 school yearChicago had 1,975 reported cases from students and staff.

The day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, a fifth-grade student in Chicago teacher Lauren Walsh’s class took an in-school COVID test. The results did not come in until Friday — and the student tested positive. By many reportsThese delays are not uncommon. Waiting for notifications from the district’s contact tracers can take even longer.

CPS spokesperson said that results of tests are emailed to students and staff within 24 to 72 hours. But Walsh says the contact tracers didn’t notify her about the exposure until almost a full week after the student was tested.

It was fortunate that the student was registered for weekly random testing. At Walsh’s school, only about 21 out of 306 students are currently signed up for testing, she says. CPS insists on an opt-in policy, which means that each parent or guardian must agree to have their child tested at school. Earlier in January, the Chicago Teachers Union advocated for universal opt-out testing, which Mayor Lori Lightfoot called “morally repugnant,” despite the fact that many other Illinois school districts have such a policy. The district has not been able to sign up students for testing. In fact, as of January 31, just 33% of students had enrolled. However, this is a huge improvement on the numbers of late November when less than 8% were enrolled. That time, only a handful of students were registered in dozens schools.

Walsh claims that it is largely up to teachers to encourage students to sign-up. Teachers can volunteer to reach out to parents and guardians after school — reading a script aloud, obtaining consent and then registering the student for testing. “At first they didn’t want to tell us that we were supposed to be getting paid to do that,” she says. “Then I found out that you can get paid your hourly rate to do it after school, and I was like telling other teachers, ‘Don’t do this unless you’re getting paid.’”

Walsh was referring “to” the agreement that the Chicago Teachers Union approved on January 12, which stipulates that bargaining unit staff who volunteer to serve on phone banks to facilitate vaccination efforts are supposed to “receive the non-instructional rate of pay for time spent phone banking outside of their regular workday.”

The agreement also stipulates a school staff member should serve as a student participation and testing captain. The person who serves as captain should receive an additional $1,000.

In a statement Truthout, a CPS representative affirmed that the $1,000 stipends are being offered to “captains” and clarified that school principals “can request a second Captain, allowing two staff members to split the role and the stipend,” but pushed back on the idea that additional teachers working to increase the opt-in numbers would be paid for their efforts, writing: “Teachers are not paid for submitting these consent forms.”

Walsh’s school is using Color Health, Inc. to handle the testing. It’s one of the two companies involved in a testing snafu that happened over winter break — when 24,986 out of 35,817 tests taken by CPS staff and students were rendered invalid due to shipping and weather-related delays.

Color Health is also used in the San Francisco Unified Schools District (SFUSD), which has its own set of challenges. The unions representing SFUSD workers were present on January 13. signed an updated health and safety agreementWith the district. All students and staff requested access to weekly testing at all school sites by the district. Cassondra Curiel, the president of United Educators of San Francisco, one of the district’s six unions, says that although there are a sufficient number of tests, there are major barriers for students to access them and then to receive the results.

“Right now, there are barriers for families to register the actual test on their mobile device or online,” she says. Students must set up an account on the Color Health website to access their test results. Curiel says some families are getting error messages or can’t access the website in the language they need. “So, if you go pick up a test to take, you can swirl it in your nose and follow all the rules and drop it off,” she says. “But if you can’t electronically attach that test to yourself, then it won’t have that marker, we won’t know who it’s from, and it won’t report the result.”
Since January 3, the start of this semester, more than 4,100 SFUSD students and teachersPositive cases were self-reported. There were 647 total positive cases during the fall semester.

Curiel also says that the district needs to put out more communication so that students and parents know about the resources available to them — not just weekly testing, but also free N95, KN95 and KF94 masks. “One of the big challenges about testing is that if you don’t know you can, you won’t,” Curiel says.

In a statement, a spokesperson for SFUSD wrote, “We routinely send families information via phone, email and text message about numerous ways to get tested,” noting that there is also a support line that families can contact if they need assistance with their Color Health account.

However, Curiel believes the district’s communications fall far short; for example, it could be more proactive about getting rapid tests to students during any holiday. Over winter breakSan Francisco residents didn’t receive the at-home testing promised by Gov. Gavin Newsom until after classes had already resumed.

“Best practices show over and over again that a rapid test to enter a situation would actually help prevent the proclivity of such a contagious spread happening inside the classroom,” Curiel says. “We knew that, despite all of the mitigations that we do have, which we’re trying hard to implement all the time, there would inevitably be in-school spreading. The virus does not do a U-turn when it sees the word ‘school’ on the building.”

Seattle Public Schools (SPS), educators face the most difficult challenges in ensuring that students are tested and adhere to safety protocols. Rapid antigen testing is availableEach school site offers PCR testing for students and staff who have COVID symptoms. “It’s not really so much about the test availability; it’s about the workload that comes with testing,” says Jennifer Matter, president of the Seattle Education Association. “It’s all this added workload, no additional staff.”

Matter claims that there is actually less staff than usual because of lower enrollments and the surfeit of vacant positions that haven’t been filled. She says it’s been difficult to even find substitute teachers. Matter said that SPS staff and teachers have been working remotely for the past year and a quarter. This has meant that they are doing extra work to support students and help them get used to learning and socializing in person. “We just have these positions that are going unfilled and people having to work the extra hours because the work still exists, and it has to be done,” Matter says. In January, when the district added the option of rapid testing, schools faced “more work with not enough staff.”

Much of the work of testing and contract tracing for Seattle’s 106 school sitesSchool nurses are the best to help students. There are 68 full time nurses in the district. Seven of thoseTogether with 12 other staff, they are now contract tracing full-time.

“I think the frustrating thing through this whole experience is it often feels like nobody’s listening,” Matter says. “We’re working with students directly. We are in these classrooms, doing this work every day. Our voices are often ignored. That’s where I see the role of the union … to elevate educator voices so that they’re being heard.”