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Should there be mandatory coronavirus testing for school children?

Mandatory coronavirus testing
Photo via Dan Gaken/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The CDC is reportedly against mandatory coronavirus testing in K-12 schools. This practice started on Oct. 9 in New York City, and covers thousands of students and teachers. In an update to its coronavirus guide, the CDC argued that “it is unethical and illegal to test someone who does not want to be tested, including students whose parents or guardians do not want them to be tested.” While this statement should automatically be true under normal circumstances, is it applicable in pandemic times? Should there be mandatory coronavirus testing for kids in school?

According to Politico, among the 1,700 tests run by New York City’s Department of Education (DOE) at the onset of its new testing initiative, one positive coronavirus case was found in more than 56 participating schools. For local leaders, this outcome is enough to warrant mandatory coronavirus testing. They have reportedly said students whose guardians refuse consent could be prohibited from in-person learning. If not enough consent forms are returned to provide an adequate sampling from a school’s population, remote education will be offered instead.

How randomized testing is done at New York City schools

The current testing program is scheduled for once a month, at which point between 10-20% of the student and staff body at each school will be randomly chosen for testing. According to the city’s DOE, this is designed to provide an appropriate sample size of the population. It predicts the following testing percentages will apply:

  • For a school with a base population of 0-499 = 20%
  • For a school with a base population of 500-999 = 15%
  • For a school with a base population of >1000 = 10%

Students will be required to submit signed consent forms for a shallow nose swab test if they are selected to participate. According to the DOE’s website, “to have an accurate understanding of each school population, testing for this program must be performed on a single day, in the school building, and by one provider. If your child is tested at an outside location and they test positive you must keep your child home and report that test to your principal. However, no outside test can be counted in the monthly survey.”

The coronavirus test that will be performed in schools will not be the usual type, which involves a long swab going to the very back of the nasal canal. Instead, a short, small, Q-tip-like swab will reportedly be used. It will only go into the front of the nose, and the test should take around two minutes. Later in the school year “it is possible that tests will be administered by collecting a small amount of saliva (spit),” according to the DOE.

Families who do not give consent to the randomized test will reportedly be switched over to full-time online learning, according to Gothamist. The DOE does plan to offer several chances for guardians to change their minds.

Testing will reportedly apply to all students first grade or older. According to school officials, students and families will be notified two days before the scheduled testing date in an effort to gradually roll out the new mandate to communities. 

Since it began testing, New York City has reportedly done more than 16,000 random coronavirus tests at 377 participating schools. This has returned 28 positive cases, 20 of which were staff members and eight of whom were students. To date, about 72,000 parents have given consent to have their kids participate in the randomized coronavirus testing plan, which the city reports is quite efficient. Ninety-nine percent of test results are returned in only 48 hours. 

“The proof is in the results, and these are amazing results,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told CNN. He added that it “bodes well for the future of our schools and our ability to overcome this disease.”

Criticism for mandatory coronavirus testing

Initial reaction to de Blasio’s first announcement in early September about mandatory testing for students was one of great concern. The ambiguity of language used to explain what will happen if guardians do not consent to the testing, along with the fact that parents will not be present during the procedure, were flagged as major concerns.

The CDC’s coronavirus guidance was updated when “reports that political appointees within the Trump administration have intervened in the drafting of CDC reports during the pandemic,”  according to Politico. This has called the agency’s impartiality into question.

Coronavirus numbers among children in the U.S.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association have stated that more than 84,000 new COVID-19 cases were reported in children between Oct. 1-15, according to CBS News. This is a 13% rise in child cases. Since the onset of the pandemic, more than 741,000 children have reportedly tested positive for the virus. The overall rate of infection is now at 986 cases per 100,000 U.S. children.

While mandatory school testing in New York City has been lauded for its preliminary success, the overall number of positive cases for the city is still higher than the results the testing program yielded, according to CNN. More than 2,000 students between the ages of 5-17 had tested positive for coronavirus as of Sept. 1, along with 395 staff members.

How many students would be likely affected by mandatory COVID-19 testing?

A nationwide survey covering 477 districts was conducted in August by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). The survey revealed that 49% of schools intended to reopen for fully in-person education. 26% intended to start fully remote, and another 12% wanted to start with a hybrid model, combining in-person learning with remote instruction.

No matter the setup, 85% of districts were reportedly planning to offer families the option for fully remote education.

With the pandemic looming over the entire country, school plans for reopening are in constant flux. Some districts are reportedly shifting between different teaching setups based on the rise and fall of local COVID-19 numbers, as well as pressure applied by state leaders to fully open regardless of readiness.

Vulnerability to COVID-19 within schools

Every city and school district is bound to have a different COVID-19 infection rate. Without an accurate count of students and staff in the schools themselves and without efficient reporting of cases, there’s no real way of knowing the coronavirus infection numbers at any given school. Mandatory coronavirus testing could be an adequate solution. It can be seen as unethical to force someone to get tested for something when they don’t want to, under normal circumstances. This pandemic isn’t going away any time soon, however, and it is not something that can be considered “normal circumstances.”

Given the uncontrollable nature of the disease in the U.S., much of the onus is placed on individuals to do their part in keeping community transmission low. Part of that responsibility includes getting the appropriate tests to ensure no one you come in contact with contracts the virus. School districts are working hard to make this less of an individual burden by implementing programs like mandatory testing. There is still a choice to keep your children at home, avoiding the extra testing and potential exposure to the virus as well. It’s up to each parent whether the benefits of in-person learning outweigh the risks and inconveniences.


Sources: Politico, CNN, CDC, Gothamist, NYC Department of Education, CBS News, American Academy of Pediatrics, CRPE, Vox


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