The Detroit school district will scale back its COVID testing next school year, switching from universal, weekly screenings to random tests on a small segment of people in the district.
Detroit is one of the few school districts in Michigan requiring universal testing for all employees, students and contractors. In late January, the school district required all students to submit to weekly COVID tests or transfer to the district’s virtual school.
Under the new policy, the district will randomly test a pool of 10% to 20% of the district’s population. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the decision was based on cost considerations, as well as the shifting opinion from health experts on the current stage of the pandemic.
“Right now — and we do not plan for a difference by the fall — the federal and state (government) and their health guidance are no longer naming COVID as a public health crisis,” Vitti said. “If the public health status of the COVID remains as it is, then we will be, and have been, scaling back our COVID safety protocols.”
Vitti said last week he is likely to drop the district’s mask mandate if Detroit and schools continue to see low infection rates. Meanwhile, the school board is considering eliminating its vaccination mandate for school employees.
For testing, the district’s school board approved a contract with LynxDX on April 12 to provide weekly saliva polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, testing through June 2023. The total cost for testing next year is expected to be about $31 million, covered by federal COVID relief funding. The district has paid $71 million for testing during the 2021-22 school year.
Vitti said the contract with LynxDX provides the district with an option to expand testing in case COVID cases surge during the 2022-23 school year. On the other hand, the superintendent didn’t rule out the possibility that the district would forgo testing completely if COVID infection rates in the city or district remained low.
“We may not even implement the 10%-20% of testing by the fall,” he said. “More likely, we will continue providing our contracted nurses at each school with rapid tests for symptomatic employees and students while perhaps leaving drive-thru testing available as a courtesy to employees and students.”
Janet Martinez, a district parent, said she was concerned that reduced testing by schools could become a financial challenge for families seeking out testing kits. “This is something that’s still going around,” she said. “It’s very serious.”
For now, though, many families have access to free tests. A Biden administration mandate from January requires private insurers to cover the cost of up to eight at-home tests per person per month. Medicare, Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program recipients can receive over-the-counter testing kits at no cost as long as the pandemic is designated a public health emergency.
Uninsured patients may be required to pay for COVID testing in some cases as the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration ran short of funds to reimburse clinics and hospitals in late March.
Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said “some form of testing needs to continue to occur” next year, adding that the 10% to 20% pool testing rate is consistent with health expert recommendations across the district.
“I think the district has been nimble about its testing plan,” Martin said. “If there’s a need to increase testing, we’ll push for it.”
“For some of our folks it’s going to be somewhat of a relief of not having to test every week,” he added, “and for other folks there may be mixed feelings about it.”
Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at firstname.lastname@example.org.