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Most Virginia students are returning to school without COVID-19 testing programs in place

Students in masks head for school in Caroline County.
Students in masks head for school in Caroline County.(Caroline County Public Schools via NBC12)
Published: Sep. 10, 2021 at 8:47 AM EDT
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As students return to school amid an ongoing surge of COVID-19 cases, testing has been touted as a key tool to reduce potential spread. Both the Virginia Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “strongly recommend” testing in schools, describing it as an “important mitigation strategy.” On Thursday, President Joe Biden also called for regular in-school testing, six months after allocating $10 billion for states to launch their own programs.

In Virginia, though, most students are headed back to the classroom without that regular testing in place. VDH has mapped out a statewide program for the 2021-22 school year, but the department is still selecting a vendor to run the tests. “We are anticipating that the pooled testing program will be ‘live’ by early October,” Dr. Laurie Forlano, deputy commissioner for population health, wrote in an email — about a month or more after most students have started school.

Beyond the delayed start date, the majority of the state’s 132 public school divisions haven’t committed to the program. According to VDH, 13 districts are currently signed up, including Alexandria, Charlottesville, Chesapeake and multiple divisions in the Southwest region of the state. Eleven private schools are also participating. But some of the state’s largest divisions, including Fairfax and Prince William counties, don’t have testing plans in place.

In some cases, plans have changed since they were communicated to families at the start of the year. Fairfax County, which enrolls roughly 180,000 students, originally announced it was “in the process” of partnering with its own third-party vendor to administer screening testing. But the district is “no longer consulting with that particular third party,” according to spokesperson Julie Moult.

“We continue to look at both public and private options,” she said. That could include the statewide program, but there’s currently no testing in place at any of the division’s nearly 200 schools.

Regular COVID-19 testing still isn’t a common feature at most schools across the country. But as officials scramble to protect unvaccinated children and prevent cases from spreading — which can lead to mass quarantines and significant staffing shortages — many officials, including Biden, are more aggressively touting the strategy as an important layer of prevention. In Virginia, there were 23 school-based outbreaks in August alone, including three with more than a dozen cases, according to VDH data.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

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

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