Indiana schools reopening: Why screening for coronavirus could be difficult

A woman’s body temperature is read with a contactless thermometer.
A woman’s body temperature is read with a contactless thermometer. (Evgen Kotenko/ Ukrinform/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Before she sends her two children back to school next year, Sherry Holmes said she’d like to see every student and staff member in the state tested for COVID-19.

That seems unlikely as tests remain limited and targeted at those who are high risk or symptomatic. So Holmes said she will likely keep her kindergartner and third grader home for a few weeks, at least until she can see what precautions their school is taking. 

“For me as a parent, it’s scary just to think about,” she said.

Reopening school buildings is one of the last and trickiest steps in Gov. Eric Holcomb’s plan to lift statewide restrictions brought on by the coronavirus. The Indiana State Department of Health reports hundreds of new COVID-19 cases daily, and the return of thousands of children and educators to classrooms could further spread the virus. 

Holmes and a vocal group of parents want schools to conduct regular coronavirus screenings for students and staff when they reopen after July 1. But working out logistics and cost will be a challenge for administrators.

Screening can include anything from taking everyone’s temperature to checking for a list of symptoms. For larger schools, trying to capture all students’ information before they walk in the door could cause a bottleneck near the entrances, which would make social distancing difficult. And many students who ride the bus to school will likely already have come into contact with classmates.

“That would be very time-consuming,” said Shandy Dearth, IUPUI director of undergraduate epidemiology education. “You’ve got the cost of thermometers and then there’s some question of how reliable that data is.”

More definitive testing is likely out of reach for schools because it requires a medical professional to administer and receiving a positive or negative result typically takes days. Plus, experts say tests can create a false sense of security. A person could receive a negative result, then be exposed to the virus the next day and become positive, according to the state’s Joint Information Center. 

Instead, it’s important to educate families on what symptoms to look for, Dearth said. Schools will likely rely on parents to determine if their child is sick, she said, just like during a typical flu or cold season. She said it’s the state’s responsibility to make sure parents have the time off work to keep children exhibiting symptoms at home.

“I don’t think we can rely solely on the school setting to monitor this,” she said. 

But Tommy Reddicks, executive director of Paramount Schools of Excellence, said schools should do more than rely on parents. He is considering purchasing thermal imaging cameras for Paramount’s three Indianapolis charter schools, which he believes would give a more accurate reading than other hand-held thermometers. Each camera would cost around $1,000, he said. 

“Yes, we want families to self-screen, absolutely but it can’t stop there,” Reddicks said. “For us to assume that [families] can be their own health specialists would be an assumption that could come back and really hurt our school culture. 

“We want every screening tool we can get our hands on.”

The approaches schools take will vary across districts. State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick has pointed schools toward local health departments to figure out what will work best for them. The state does not require schools to screen students and staff, but last week recommended at least asking families and employees to “self-screen” for symptoms.

Avon, Gary, and Lawrence Township schools declined to talk to Chalkbeat about screening, saying administrators are still putting together their plans.

Reddicks said he wished schools had received more precise direction from the state, rather than having to come up with their own plans. 

“I’m not just frustrated, I’m flat-out mad,” he said. “This is such an important moment for the state and important moments for families and for kids. We shouldn’t be passing the buck of accountability, and I think that’s what’s happened from the top down.”

School nurses will help screen on Paramount campuses and train teachers to spot coronavirus symptoms, he said. But not every school in Indiana has a dedicated full-time nurse, which could make it challenging to implement more than screening, said Indiana Association of School Nurses President Andrea Tanner. 

“I think it’s critical right now for a school to have a nurse,” she said. “We are trying to figure out how to educate students in the middle of a health crisis, and to not have a dedicated health expert in your school, it has to be so difficult.”

School nurses oversee health plans for students who need extra medication or monitoring for particular conditions. When schools reopen, the state recommends ramping up those plans. Tanner said school nurses can serve as a liaison to local health departments. 

Having a nurse in every building is among the demands outlined in a report Holmes put together with 14 other parents, organized by the nonprofit Stand For Children. They are also advocating for increased cleaning, remote learning options, and improved communication between teachers and families, among other precautions. 

“We need somebody that’s in a medical field at the school,” she said. “Our kids are our future. We’ve got to make sure that they have everything that they need.”

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