Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools brought back middle and high school students for in-person learning rotations this week, the last step in a phased return to classrooms.
Roughly 80,000 students (not including those enrolled in full-remote learning) and most of the district’s teachers will be in the classroom on a rotation, with various COVID-19 safety protocols in place. But getting a coronavirus test before entering school is not required.
For most middle and high school students, the upcoming weeks will be the first time they have had face-to-face instruction since March 2020, when schools abruptly closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. After elementary, pre-K and special needs students began their in-person learning rotations in the fall, CMS delayed bringing in more students. In-person learning was paused entirely in December, with CMS citing rising case counts in the county.
With a significant drop in cases in Mecklenburg, district leaders have expressed cautious optimism about in-person learning. Even with fewer infections circulating in the community, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that some school districts consider additional mitigation measures to slow down the spread of the virus.
One method that CMS leaders said they have discussed, but have not implemented, is testing asymptomatic students and teachers in buildings to monitor the spread of coronavirus in buildings.
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions.
What is surveillance testing?
Surveillance testing involves testing randomly selected asymptomatic individuals to screen them for COVID-19.
The CDC previously recommended against broader testing of individuals who weren’t sick. But the most recent recommendations say schools in areas with moderate to high transmission risk should consider implementing a widespread testing program.
Communities with a test positivity rate of 5 to 7.9% are considered moderate risk under the new recommendations, as well as places with 10 to 49 new cases per 100,000 people, over a 7-day period. Mecklenburg County most recently reported a 7.6% positivity rate, and 217.3 cases per 100,000 people over a 7-day period.
“Testing teachers and staff should be prioritized over students in any sampling strategy, and older students prioritized over younger students,” the CDC recommendations say. “Persons who have recovered from COVID-19 in the past 3 months should be excluded from random selection.”
Identifying positive, asymptomatic cases can allow schools to contact trace and isolate potential cases before wider spread can occur. The CDC also recommends tailoring any testing strategy to focus on communities at higher risk of spread, which in Mecklenburg County continues to vary widely by ZIP code.
State health officials also say that prioritizing surveillance testing for adults and older children may be more efficient as younger children are less likely to contract and spread the virus.
Does CMS offer COVID testing?
In the fall, CMS and Mecklenburg County health officials offered a one-time coronavirus test before the district expanded in-person instruction and brought back elementary school students. However, the district does not currently offer COVID-19 tests. The district said it has worked with the county to refer staff and students to independent testing sites.
The CDC said that it has not concluded whether one-time, universal testing upon re-entry to school is more effective at limiting spread that other measures such as social distancing and masking.
“However, if infrastructure is in place, and resources are available, schools can serve as a venue for health departments to offer community-based testing to teachers, staff, students and potentially their family members,” the recommendations say.
Why is CMS not testing students or teachers?
CMS officials say training and staffing a testing program remains a hurdle to offering surveillance testing in schools. The district would also have to obtain a waiver to perform the testing outside of a clinical setting.
“We’ve been talking about the surveillance testing,” Coordinated School Health Specialist Monica Adamian said Friday. “And really, one of the challenges is the size of our district.”
Officials also said that they believe there are ample opportunities to get tested throughout the county, though they acknowledged those options are more targeted towards people who have symptoms or who were possibly exposed due to close contact with a positive case.
Are other districts testing students?
Some other large districts like Atlanta Public Schools and New York City Public Schools have implemented a testing program as part of their reopening plans. In New York City, randomly selected groups of students are tested weekly in buildings open to in-person instruction.
In North Carolina, the state Department of Health and Human Services is operating a school testing pilot, targeted to students and staff who develop symptoms in school or who are identified as close contacts. The program uses rapid antigen tests and includes 17 school districts and 11 charter schools. CMS is not part of the pilot.
State officials say they plan to expand the school-based testing program early in 2021.
What if a student or employee is sick?
Students and employees who report on-site must fill out a form every day before they are allowed into a CMS building. The form asks about symptoms, exposure to positive cases and whether they have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Children who ride a bus to school also must present the form to the driver.
If a student develops symptoms of COVID-19 while at school, they are placed in isolation rooms away from other students until they can be sent home.
District officials said that individuals who show symptoms at school will not be allowed to return until they obtain a negative PCR test.