It’s the ‘COVID Test Hunger Games’ for Families as Schools Face Omicron
Kendra Levine’s son, Eddie, is only 5 years old, but he immediately recognized the significance of the negative result on the COVID-19 rapid tests he took at home last weekend.
After two weeks of being away, Eddie was able to go back to school after the tests were given by Berkeley Unified Schools District. Levine had more confidence in sending Eddie to school every Monday, which was the best part.
“He was extremely thrilled to show it to us,” says Levine, whose son has become familiar with pandemic routines in the last two years. “For two years, most of his memory has been shaped by this. ‘We have to wear masks, we have to avoid people who aren’t wearing masks,’” she says. “The thing we keep telling him is: We’re doing our part to keep other people safe.’”
As COVID-19 cases are fuelled by the Omicron variation surge, many students returning from winter vacation this week will be affected. This could complicate efforts to maintain school buildings safe and open for all. Districts are now requiring that students show evidence of negative tests. Many others have returned to distant learning after facing severe staff shortages and high levels of community infection.
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As they attempt to adapt to what looks like another year of pandemic threats, the overall picture shows confusion for both parents and children. Every family that has access to home testing is not alone. Many others are facing closures of schools or trying to locate COVID-19 test on their own to send their children back to school.
Before classes resumed on Thursday, all 51,000 students from Washington D.C. public schools were required to show proof that they had taken a negative COVID-19 exam. Eric Adams (new mayor of New York City) pledged that schools would remain open. He also increased random school testing. The officials said they will give at-home quick test kits to all students and staff members in any class where someone has tested positive.
California leaders had pledged to provide the state’s 6 million K-12 students with at-home COVID-19 tests, anticipating a virus spike during winter break. However, by Monday’s reopening of many schools, less than half had been sent to the districts. Times reported.
When Minneapolis Public Schools emailed families on Dec. 30, asking them to “take the extra step of getting tested for COVID-19 before returning to school on Jan. 3,” parent and epidemiologist Rachel Widome says the “Covid Test Hunger Games” began, as parents shared tips in Facebook groups for finding rapid tests at drug stores. Although the district provided a link for community testing sites, many people were overwhelmed by long waiting lines.
Many families failed to report the results, even though tests were offered in Berkeley. District staff distributed test kits to approximately 12,000 students. They asked them to take test results on the 31st of December and then again on January 2. A total of 64% (6,687 individuals) submitted their results. Nearly 230 positive cases were revealed, which is a rate of 2.95%.
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Still, that was enough to reassure the district superintendent, Brent Stephens, who says those positive results enabled district leaders to minimize viral spread in schools and allowed those who’d tested positive to isolate safely.
Stephens hopes those take-home tests—combined with regular in-school testing, mandatory masking and required COVID-19 vaccination for those age 12 and over—will help keep buildings open for students.
That’s critical to preventing even more of the learning loss and social stresses that became clear during extended school closures in the 2020-21 school year, he says.
“It is where they belong. It’s where they need to be. It’s where they can grow up. We did see just extremely negative effects of that prolonged period of distance learning showing up in terms of depression, mental health issues, feelings of isolation, lost opportunities for development,” Stephens says. “We all feel a very strong commitment, as a community, to keep schools open and to be sure that students aren’t deprived of those critical experiences again.”
Districts across the nation have found it difficult to cope with rising COVID-19 rates. Stephens says staff absences in his district reached “a level we’ve never seen” this week, with 65 staff members absent Tuesday and only about 25 substitutes available to fill in. District officials are considering placing certified teaching staff in classrooms as a way to make up the missing teachers.
In Chicago, officials canceled school on Wednesday and Thursday as members of the teachers’ union voted not to report to school buildings and called for remote learning amid surging coronavirus cases, asking the district to expand COVID-19 testing before they return.
However, testing remains an issue nationwide.
Widome, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota whose 4th-grade son attends Minneapolis Public Schools, had purchased rapid tests already and had some at home, but she knows she’s an exception.
“For a lot of families, that’s probably an impossible ask, given the testing shortage,” Widome says. “There’s certainly infectious people who are in schools now —both students and staff— that, had they had access to a test, they wouldn’t be in school right now. And those are situations that could be starting new chains of infection.”
Joe Biden announced plans to give 500 million Americans free, at-home rapid testing kits. However, school was resumed without these reinforcements.
“This should be easy. You shouldn’t have to spend time and money and intellectual energy and be a well-connected person to be able to access these tests,” Widome says. “We need to make it easy for individuals to do the right thing. It should be easy for individuals to take the test. And right now we’re making it really hard.”
Widome counts every day her son spends in school as a victory, but even though he’s vaccinated and good at wearing a mask, she worries about the risk that he’ll still contract COVID-19. And she’s frustrated that the simple act of sending her child to school remains so fraught nearly two years into the pandemic.
“I have a certain amount of resentment that I and other people are in this situation, that leadership has let us down so much that two years in, I have to worry about sending my kid to school,” she says. “I would’ve thought we could’ve been in a better place by now.”