‘The cutting edge of safety’: Philly area schools plan widespread coronavirus testing

Masked student sitting at desk
Mastery Charter School (Courtesy of Jasmine Alston Photography / WHYY)

School administrators across the Philadelphia area are moving forward with plans to provide coronavirus testing to students and staff — a step seen by many as essential for in-person learning to proceed safely.

The planning comes as a surge of coronavirus cases have compelled the School District of Philadelphia to delay bringing some students back to the classroom, and forced other schools in the region to suspend in-person learning.

Mastery Charter — which runs 26 schools with more than 14,000 students in Philadelphia and Camden — announced Thursday that it would provide free weekly coronavirus tests to all students and staff who want them, whenever in-person education resumes.

“We really recognized it was the cutting edge of safety, and something that was incredibly important to ensuring the health and safety of our kids,” said Laura Clancy, a senior adviser with Mastery.

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia also confirmed Thursday it was in discussions with local government and school districts in the region to pilot a program to administer COVID-19 tests in schools. A CHOP spokesperson declined to offer more detail, but Chester and Delaware counties, as well as two Montgomery County school districts, Lower Merion and North Penn, confirmed they would be participating. A spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health said they are “having some conversations about how it could be organized in Philly,” but said nothing was formalized.

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite also said Thursday that he expects tests to be available for all students and staff that want them when classrooms re-open. The district is partnering with the city’s health department, but could not yet give specifics about what the testing program will look like and how it would be administered.

“The test will be voluntary, but will be mandatory for people with [COVID] symptoms,” Hite said. “That’s our approach right now, but we’re in the process of finalizing, we hope within the next couple of weeks, a plan for administration.”

Grappling with cost

Public health and education experts have honed in on consistent testing as the key to making in-person instruction safe during the pandemic. One recent study from Johns Hopkins and Duke University found that weekly coronavirus tests can reduce transmission within a school by 60 to 70%. Officials in New York City reopened elementary schools this week, even as the pandemic worsens, based largely on weekly testing.

Mastery’s experience administering a small number of coronavirus tests to students and staff this fall convinced the charter network that routine testing was effective, Clancy said. For one, their overall positivity rate mirrored the city’s rate at the time. Perhaps more importantly for reducing transmission, Clancy said many of those who tested positive had no symptoms.

“If really the only way to tell if someone who is asymptomatic is sick is to do a test…that’s a pretty compelling reason to do a screening program,” Clancy said.

Clancy said Mastery’s plan is only possible because the cost of coronavirus tests has fallen dramatically in the last few months. The school system will pay about $12 per test. By comparison, the average cost of a coronavirus test last summer was $127. 

Still, those tests add up. Mastery plans to spend up to $2.7 million of federal coronavirus stimulus funds to pay for the endeavor through the end of the year. The charter network has been able to absorb many other pandemic-related expenses, such as laptops for all students, in part because of its strong philanthropic support.

Mastery is budgeting for a plan to test roughly 50% of all students — the amount they expect will want to return to in-person learning when it becomes available — every week from mid-January through the end of the school year.

If the School District of Philadelphia wanted to do the same testing program for the same proportion of its students, it would cost about $15 million. The district is currently facing a budget gap of nearly four times that amount. 

Cost is proving to be a major obstacle for other schools, many of whom have struggled to pay for more basic necessities in the COVID era, including personal protective equipment. A spokesperson for the African American Charter School Coalition, a group of Black-led Philadelphia charter schools, said some of those schools would like to implement consistent COVID-19 testing for students and staff, but have long since run out of federal stimulus funding, and lack other philanthropic support.

“There is limited funding that these schools have,” coalition spokesperson Dawn Chavous said. “With limited funding, you are limited in terms of what you can do.”

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