By Garick Hismatulin, Co-founder and CEO of Kyla
The COVID-19 pandemic is now in its third year and educators are starting to consider what the new normal will look like. To protect students and faculty, school systems have implemented different policies regarding remote learning, wearing protective masks, and inoculation. Every state, every county, and even every school district has applied different protocols to try to control contagion while continuing to educate students.
According to UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition, U.S. schools were closed an average of 41 weeks during the pandemic, with some schools closed for as long as 71 weeks, affecting 58.5 million learners. A McKinsey study shows that for K-12 students, disruptions due to the pandemic have left students five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading. Research also predicts that “unfinished learning” could mean students may earn $49,000 to $61,000 less over their lifetime due to the pandemic disruption.
As the pandemic becomes endemic, scientists predict that COVID-19 will stay with us, just like the flu. According to research from the Center for Disease Control, for every five additional cases per 100,000 within the population, the risk of a school outbreak increases 72%. Teachers infected with the coronavirus also are at risk of infecting students. One unvaccinated elementary school teacher removed her mask to read to the class and infected 50% of the students.
Today, most students must be inoculated for measles, mumps, chickenpox, diphtheria, and other common childhood diseases, and you can expect to see COVID-19 added to the list. To keep faculty and students healthy and in the classroom, schools will be less concerned with preventing a COVID outbreak and more concerned with monitoring for potential COVID carriers. That will require regular testing for COVID.
COVID Testing in Schools
Since COVID-19 will likely be with us for some time, the goal for educators needs to be protecting students, faculty, and staff and keeping schools open with little or no disruption. That’s a three-step process:
- Detection – Identify COVID cases early with testing.
- Isolation – Remove COVID-infected students and staff to prevent the spread of the virus.
- Contact tracing – To contain any possible infection, identify and monitor anyone who may have been exposed.
As with the flu, we can expect to see seasonal COVID spikes, but regular testing should be required throughout the school year. We recommend testing at least monthly, but school districts will need to develop policies regarding regular COVID testing and overcome some challenges.
First will be determining who will bear the expense of testing. Today, there is no charge for COVID testing, but that will probably change and the insurance companies will expect copayment for testing. That means costs will likely fall to parents to pay to have their children tested, just as they must pay for inoculations.
Administering testing is another concern. At-home COVID antigen tests are readily available, but they can give inaccurate results. Antigen tests for those with symptoms proved accurate 72% of the time and only 58.1% for those who were asymptomatic. Although FDA-approved, antigen tests are usually administered to people who have been symptomatic for days and looking to validate a COVID infection. PCR (polymer chain reaction) testing is shown to be accurate in 92.7% of cases and should be administered by a trained healthcare professional and the results processed in a certified lab.
Administering PCR tests to an entire school and managing the test results can be complicated. For on-site testing, administering staggered tests to specific grades or classes can reduce the chaos. Some schools may prefer to have students tested by their doctor or an independent test center, or they may want to send test kits home that can be mailed to the lab. Healthcare companies like Kyla have the capability to handle on-site, in-clinic, and mail-in testing, with all results available to patients on a single mobile app.
Technology Simplifies School Testing
Technology will simplify test registration and management of the test results. Students and staff will be able to register with the school’s testing service at an online lab website or download a smartphone app to access the results. The test will be available and posted for secure access within 24 hours.
Privacy is always a concern. The relationship between the patient and the lab is the same as that between a patient and doctor so personal information including any symptoms is protected per HIPAA regulations. The only information that can be shared with the school is whether the test was positive or negative.
When selecting a testing service that provides COVID testing, school systems should choose a reliable organization that can handle 24-hour testing turnaround in volume. While spring and summer cases are still expected to rise on occasion, experts anticipate that COVID-19 could eventually become a seasonal disease like the flu, which will mean seasonal spikes in demand for COVID testing. Schools also can expect to have their own peak testing time based on the academic calendar, such as at the start of the school year and following vacations. The testing company they choose should have a proven track record and the necessary technology to deliver results on time, as promised, and at moderate costs, typically $4 per test or less.
No matter how we move forward to deal with COVID-19 as an ongoing concern, keeping schools COVID-free is going to take careful consideration and planning. Procedures will need to conform to state and county regulations while still offering adequate protection for students, faculty, and staff. Infection detection remains the first concern, which is why regular COVID testing is going to be needed in schools for some time to come.
Garick Hismatulin is cofounder of Kyla, a Silicon Valley company that works with companies, schools, and government agencies making testing available and providing education about COVID-19. A serial entrepreneur, Garick has dedicated his career to helping people live healthier and longer.
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