Virginia to pilot COVID-19 testing program in public schools

Virginia to pilot COVID-19 testing program in public schools
The state is in the beginning stages of launching the pilot program, but Forlano said she aims to provide testing resources to every local school division that requests them. (Source: Pixabay)

Virginia is one of a growing number of states exploring testing as a way to combat COVID-19 in K-12 schools.

Dr. Laurie Forlano, a deputy commissioner for the Virginia Department of Health, said the agency is launching a pilot program to provide rapid antigen tests to schools across the state. VDH is rolling out the program with Abbott BinaxNOW tests — portable kits, roughly the size of a credit card, that provide results in around 15 minutes.

“We agree that testing can be a layer of prevention,” said Forlano, who oversees population health for the department. The concept of screening students and staff isn’t a new one, and some colleges and private K-12 schools have been testing since the fall. But it’s taken on new importance since Virginia — like many states across the country — began encouraging local school divisions to reopen for in-person instruction.

As of March 22, only three of Virginia’s 132 school districts were operating fully remotely. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also issued interim guidance for K-12 testing, which is largely mirrored by VDH in its own reopening guidelines for schools.

“I know there are so much optimism and enthusiasm and work around vaccination,” Forlano said. “But the role of testing is still really important. Especially in schools, when younger children won’t have the opportunity to receive an approved vaccine probably until the fall or even the new year.”

The state is in the beginning stages of launching the pilot program, but Forlano said she aims to provide testing resources to every local school division that requests them. If a school expressed interest, VDH would send them free test kits and provide more information on the best practices for deploying them. The department also plans to launch a new website in the next week with a public testing toolkit and more information on the pilot program.

Forlano said VDH has been collaborating with other health departments in states that have launched similar programs. Both Maryland and North Carolina, for example, have been testing in schools with BinaxNOW kits. The concept is better known as “screening testing” — a way to identify potential cases even if students and staff aren’t showing symptoms.

The logistics of the program are complicated and often depend on the infrastructure and needs in individual communities or schools, according to Forlano. The end goal is stopping cases before they enter the building and potentially spread among students and staff. But there are multiple ways of deploying the tests. Some schools do pre-admission screening — testing students and staff before reopening the building. Others have launched weekly or even twice-a-week testing.

“I think what we’re envisioning is regular weekly testing,” Forlano said. But in large public schools, screening all students and staff might not be feasible, even with rapid results. What’s more likely is that schools will choose cohorts within their total population — teachers, for example, or their fourth-grade class.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.