DOH expands school testing initiative to encourage more in-person learning

The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) in partnership with the Washington Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) and Health Commons is expanding its COVID-19 testing service for schools and adding voluntary testing options to its toolkit for school districts. This is part of the ongoing effort to expand in-person learning to more Washington students, DOH said in a Tuesday announcement.

The department has partnered with 11 districts on a testing pilot project, and so far the results have been encouraging. Combined with other mitigation strategies, like practicing six feet of physical distancing, using face coverings, keeping students in smaller cohorts, maximizing/improving ventilation, and practicing good hygiene and disinfection habits, testing in schools has helped build confidence in safer in-person learning.

“The students who are back in classrooms have benefited immensely from the advantages of in-person learning,” said Enumclaw Schools Superintendent Shaun Carey, whose schools have participated in the pilot. “The addition of COVID testing adds a layer of protection, and when used together with other countermeasures and safety protocols, it dramatically decreases the risk to our learning community and supports our ability to continue serving students in-person.”

Now, DOH is expanding the testing program, with at least 48 more districts signed up to start this month, and a “Learn to Return Playbook” designed to help school districts develop COVID-19 testing strategies that work for them. The program is voluntary, flexible and, as always, decisions about when and how to expand in-person learning are up to each school district, working with their local health jurisdictions. The playbook offers a range of COVID-19 testing options districts can choose from. Each district that joins the program will have access to a a dedicated testing strategy planner from Health Commons who will help them determine what works best for their community.

An Edmonds School District spokesperson said she wasn’t sure if the Edmonds district is participating in the expanded testing program.

Testing strategies can be thought of as a pyramid, with diagnostic testing (testing of people with symptoms or known exposures) as the broad base, with the option to build up to asymptomatic screening or surveillance testing, DOH said.

“Many school districts and educators have already proven that by following health and safety protocols, returning to the classroom can be done safely and with great results,” Gov. Jay Inslee said. “Improved testing will help educators and families feel more secure as they return to or continue on-site learning. I know the past year has been extremely challenging for students, their families and educators. We all want the best for every student and I am confident that we can continue to get more children back in the classroom.”

“Teachers and families have done a remarkable job keeping our students learning and progressing under such difficult circumstances over the past year,” said Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH, Secretary of Health. “Still, we know in-person learning has huge benefits for student development, and it improves equity for all students. We must do everything we can to get students back into classrooms with their teachers and testing is a critical tool in this effort.”

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