As Delaware school districts declare how they will start the new year, the state is preparing to test all teachers and students for the coronavirus before they return to classes.
“We are going to be … probably doing twice to three times the amount of testing for several weeks there, so it’s going to be a heavy logistical lift, but we’re going to be all over the state,” said A.J. Schall Jr., director of the Delaware Emergency Management Agency. His team has been in charge of providing testing around the state.
He spoke Tuesday during Gov. John Carney’s weekly COVID-19 press conference.
The state now aims for thousands of tests a week. The average number of tests done weekly wasn’t immediately available Thursday, Schall said last week’s numbers were down by 3,000 because of Tropical Storm Isaias and the Friday night storm in north New Castle County.
The Delaware State Education Association represents more than 12,000 teachers and other school workers. About 141,000 students were in Delaware public schools last year.
Additional testing could mean a logjam at labs providing results, Schall said, but the tests will be spread out among three laboratories. They include the state’s, which is handling nasal swab tests from Walgreens; Curative, which is providing saliva tests at state and New Castle County sites; and now Vault Health saliva tests, which can be done at home and mailed to a lab.
And the state is always looking for more tests and labs to help, Schall and others have said.
Carney said he told Schall he wanted everybody working in schools and in contact with students, including bus drivers, to be tested. The governor said he was pleased Schall’s plan made it easy for people to get tests.
The working plan is to test everybody near the time schools open, and then test all teachers each month by doing 1/4 of them each week of a month, Schall said.
The state cannot demand teachers be tested, Schall said. That would be up to the districts, he said.
Carney praised Cape Henlopen School District’s plan for a hybrid opening, which offers a mix of in-person and remote classes. He and the Delaware Department of Education have been urging to schools to start that way, with younger children in classroom for critical basic instruction, and older ones with remote instruction.
Cape Henlopen’s plan gives families a choice of remote classes for all ages.
But Jane Brady, chairman of the Delaware Republican Party and mother of a son in seventh grade, isn’t happy with the plan, which she finds confusing.
She believes the state is ignoring science, which says it’s OK for kids to return to school.
“We need the children to be back in school,” Brady said. “It appears the science supports getting them back in school more than keeping them out of school. With the safeguards they’re provided, there’s no reason why the children can’t be in the classroom.”
Carney, the Division of Public Health and the state Department of Education have set up three criteria for deciding how schools should operate based on the minimal, moderate and severe spread of the virus and the numbers of new positive cases per 100,00, the percentage of positive tests each day and the numbers of those hospitalized.
Officials said last week that they would not recommend all in-person classes, or all remote.
Remote learning was a dismal failure in the spring, Brady said. “Students either stayed stagnant or fell backwards.” The state needs to make sure that students don’t lose an entire year to the pandemic.
While she is glad that parents whose children have an underlying health issue have options, she believes the schools should open through high school. Using masks, consistent social distancing and other safeguards makes it safe, she said.
“There are classes in high school that can’t be taught remotely,” she said. That includes hands-on science classes. And the kids are missing social interaction, learning how to get along with others and understanding kids their age.
“Without that, the kids lives are less,” she said. “They need it.”
Brady is confused about how Cape Henlopen’s schedule will operate. It’s offering Monday-Tuesday classes, or Thursday-Friday classes. Wednesdays are called transition days, but she can’t tell if that means it’s a work day, catch-up day or class day. The high school schedule uses words like synchronous and asynchronous classes. She will call and ask questions.
Her son is dyslexic, meaning it’s harder for him to read. While Brady helped with his work last spring, she hired a tutor for him this summer so he won’t fall behind.
She wants to know more about what kind of a learning experience he’ll have before she commits to in-person or remote learning. If it’s similar to what happened in the spring, she says, he’d be better off working at home with her using the materials provided by the school.
The timing of testing for teachers and students will be based on district decisions, which includes whether classes will be in-person, remote or a mix, as well as the date school starts, Schall said.
Brandywine School District, for example, has delayed the start of school until Sept. 15 to allow it to plan better. It has not said how classes will be structured. But there would be no need to test students or teachers now, so far from the start dates.
Schall said he plans to have testing done in each district, often located at a high school because it tends to have the kind of footprint that allows both drive-up and walk-up testing.
However, he emphasized if you happen to live in one place, such as the Colonial School District, you don’t have to be tested there.
“We don’t care where you’re taking kids to get tested,” Schall said. “They could go to any of these sites.”
The sites also will welcome anyone in the community, not just educators and students, he said. No doctor’s orders are needed.