School board OKs $1.7M federal grant to expand Covid-19 testing

Alamance-Burlington school board members voted 5-2 during their latest meeting to seek a $1.7 million federally-funded grant that would be used to offer Covid-19 testing for ABSS students and staff through the remainder of the 2021-22 school year.

Voting in favor of applying for the grant were school board chairman Allison Gant and vice chairman Tony Rose, as well as school board members Wayne Beam, Patsy Simpson, and Donna Westbrooks.

School board member Ryan Bowden and Sandy Ellington-Graves were opposed, citing their concerns that, while Covid-19 testing initially would be voluntary, they fear that federal public health officials could make it mandatory for students to be tested for the virus. School board member Donna Westbrooks had insisted on removing any reference to mandatory participation in testing for Covid-19 – saying “we are going to take the word ‘require’ out” – during an earlier discussion about the proposed federal grant application.

The federal grant funding would be used to hire 41 temporary employees – specifically, six registered nurses and 35 “nurse extenders,” most likely Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) – to assist with testing and notifying close contacts of anyone who tests positive for Covid-19, ABSS chief student services officer Dr. LaJuana Norfleet told the board last week. The grant would run to July 2022, she said.

ABSS would perform two types of testing for Covid-19: “routine screening,” or regular preventative testing for students and staff who are asymptomatic and have no known exposure to the virus; and diagnostic testing for staff and students who have symptoms of Covid-19 and are confirmed as a close contact of someone who tests positive. Both types of testing are intended to limit potential exposure to and spread of Covid-19, Norfleet said.
Consent would be required at the time of the test, Norfleet said last week. Parents who “opt in” to Covid-19 testing would be notified when their children are tested at school, under guidelines developed by the state Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS), which is overseeing the “Strong Schools NC testing program.”

The six RNs would assist ABSS school nurses in managing positive cases and conducting “contact tracing,” by calling or emailing anyone believed to have been within six feet of someone who tests positive for Covid-19 for 15 minutes or longer within any 24-period period.

Nurse extenders would be responsible for the following: Collecting and reviewing consent forms for Covid-19 testing; reviewing and collecting copies of Covid-19 vaccination cards for individuals who are fully vaccinated and opt out of testing; setting up testing areas as needed; selecting individuals for random, “pooled” testing; and assisting school nurses with monitoring students who become sick during the day and sent to an isolation room.

Pooled testing would be performed on various groups of students who’ve opted in – such as athletes and band/chorus members who are currently participating in those activities – on Mondays and Tuesdays, based on a description that Norfleet outlined during an initial discussion with school board members at their September 14 work session.

Norfleet emphasized during the earlier discussion that pooled testing would give ABSS enough time to get test results back and follow up on suspected positive cases before students participate in athletic competitions or other extracurricular activities that are believed to elevate the risk for exposure to Covid-19. Students who opt out of testing wouldn’t be excluded from participating in extracurricular activities, Norfleet said, but added that expanded testing would provide “an additional layer of safety.”

ABSS had previously offered “rapid antigen” testing for Covid-19 since late 2020 but would offer PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) testing throughout the remainder of the current school year, pending approval of the federal grant application.

Both tests rely on nasal swabs to detect the presence of the virus that causes Covid-19. Rapid antigen tests deliver results in as little as 15 minutes but is considered less accurate; PCR tests two to three days for results but generally give fewer “false negatives” than rapid testing, according to state and federal public health officials.

While testing would be optional for ABSS, the NCDHHS recommends that N.C. public school systems require all employees who are either unvaccinated or decline to disclose vaccine status to participate in regular testing for Covid-19, based on the “Strong Schools N.C. Public Health Toolkit” that the department developed this summer and most recently updated Tuesday afternoon.