Two weeks after launching a voluntary coronavirus testing program for school staff, Frederick County Public Schools has ended the effort due to a lack of participation.
The district had partnered with testing vendor Capital Diagnostics, according to FCPS Superintendent Terry Alban, and the school system and vendor planned to begin by having testing available at a small handful of sites around the county. Eventually, they were going to expand to be “at almost every” school, Alban said.
But “even in the school where [the testers] were for four hours, they only had two people show up,” Alban noted during Wednesday night's school board meeting, where FCPS officials spent more than an hour discussing testing options for students and staff. No school had more than about 10 participants during the short-lived initiative, the superintendent added.
“I don’t know how much more convenient we could make it for people,” Alban said.
Demand is increasing on testing vendors, Alban noted, and Capital Diagnostics said it wasn’t feasible to continue providing staff to FCPS with such a low turnout. The testing stopped being available to staff Wednesday.
Plus, screening testing won’t provide the school system with useful data unless at least 10 percent of staff opt in, said Frederick County Health Officer Barbara Brookmyer at Wednesday's meeting.
Alban acknowledged there wasn’t much incentive for many FCPS staff to opt into the program and take time out of their days — which are already much busier than usual amid intense staffing shortages — to get tested.
“As an employee, what would be the benefit for myself?” Alban said. “Because if I’m asymptomatic and I go in and get tested, then I’m going to be off work for 10 days.”
Brookmyer said low participation was likely also due, in part, to a sort of pandemic fatigue.
“Fewer people seem to be really interested or concerned about it,” she said.
The district’s attempt to launch a screening testing program was partially aimed at getting ahead of an incoming requirement from the federal government. In September, President Joe Biden announced all employers with 100 or more workers would soon be required to test unvaccinated employees weekly.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been developing the emergency order and submitted it to the Office of Management and Budget for review on Tuesday, bringing it one step closer to implementation.
The board this week also discussed testing options for students. FCPS doesn’t currently offer any coronavirus tests to students — for screening purposes or for those who show symptoms.
That’s partially because they don’t have the staff to perform the testing or keep track of records, Alban said. While a state program would provide the materials needed to get a screening program off the ground, FCPS would have to provide the manpower.
Plus, Brookmyer said, because the student testing would require parent permission, the district would almost certainly run into the same participation issues with students as it did with staff. And the parents who opted in would likely be the ones who are more cautious about the virus anyway, thus skewing the sample.
“Last year, screening would have been much more helpful, I think, than it would be right now,” Brookmyer said.
Another option is diagnostic testing, which is typically given to people showing symptoms. That wouldn’t be much help, Brookmyer said, because students with symptoms would still have to go home until their test results came back, which would take about 24 hours.
One type of diagnostic testing that’s gained traction in some school systems is called “test-to-stay.” Recently adopted in Montgomery County Public Schools, the model calls for rapid-testing students who are identified as close contacts of a positive case and allowing them to avoid quarantine if they test negative.
But again, Brookmyer said, supply and staff issues made that proposal a long shot for FCPS.
“It would be really, really person-resource-intensive for us to have a diagnostic program at every school,” Brookmyer said. “And the vendors don’t even have enough of the supplies, even if we had the people and the infrastructure to carry that out.”
Ultimately, the board didn’t vote on any measures regarding testing in schools.
Members’ concerns about students spending significant time out of school were somewhat alleviated by a change to their quarantine procedures allowing close contacts to avoid quarantine if they were masked at the time of their exposure.
“Nothing, through any of this, has been easy,” board member Karen Yoho said. “And just when you think you have an answer or something that’s gonna be helpful, it proves not to be as much.”