As schools across the state opened for in-person instruction, it became immediately apparent that stopping the spread of COVID-19 among students and staff is close to impossible, even with stringent health protocols in place.
With Bexar County schools preparing to open their doors to students come Sept. 8, the question has evolved from how to prevent new cases to what schools can and should do to protect people once cases of the novel coronavirus surface among students and staff on campus.
Since Boerne Independent School District reopened its 13 campuses Aug. 12, the district has recorded eight active cases, with 197 people exposed to a confirmed positive case as of Thursday morning.
As larger schools districts such as Northside ISD, San Antonio ISD, and North East ISD reopen classrooms to some students, mass testing of students and staff does not appear to be a viable option, according to local school and health officials.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t recommend mass testing, Dr. Junda Woo, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District’s medical director, emphasized, noting it is not necessary to test everyone within a school building even when people begin testing positive.
If outbreaks require large quantities of tests on campuses that have large numbers of people testing positive or exposed to the virus, the number of tests currently available to local public health authorities is adequate, Woo said.
Bexar County has the capacity to test between 7,000 and 7,500 people for COVID-19 per day, but only close to half that number have been lining up for tests daily in recent weeks, Assistant City Manager and Metro Health’s Interim Director Colleen Bridger said.
“What you see there is excess capacity for testing and less demand,” Bridger said. “If you look at the trend over time, the number of people seeking COVID-19 testing has been falling, as the number of people who are positive has been falling, as the number of people who are hospitalized has been falling. All of those numbers are trending down because I think we’re seeing less COVID-19 in the community.”
July saw the addition of 33,000 new coronavirus cases, but in August, the daily number of new cases has declined steadily, leading public health authorities to give schools the green light to reopen campuses after Labor Day to no more than 25 percent of students.
“If [schools] had 3,000 people with symptoms, of course we would assist with testing,” Woo said. “I can’t imagine that being the case. What is more common is there are anywhere from several to maybe even several dozen people with symptoms, and we can facilitate testing with those people and of anyone else who is identified as exposed during the case investigation and contact tracing.”
Since July 6, city-run testing sites have been open only to those who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19.
CDC officials say people who have symptoms of COVID-19, those who have had close contact with someone with a confirmed case, and people who have been asked or referred to get testing by their health care provider should receive the test. Close contact means someone has spent more than 15 minutes within 6 feet of someone infected with coronavirus.
“If after contact tracing or case investigation we find that somebody was exposed, then yes, those people should be offered testing,” Woo said.
The State will require school districts to submit weekly reports on new student and staff COVID-19 cases starting Sept. 8. This information will be published online by the Texas Education Agency and the Department of State Health Services.
Some school districts are exploring systems that would test their communities more widely. In Somerset ISD, Saul Hinojosa studied the possibility of purchasing tests, but found the cheapest option to be cost-prohibitive at $150 a test.
Hinojosa, whose district has about 4,000 students, is looking into partnerships with nonprofits to make testing more available to his community with an eye on identifying asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus.
“We all know that much of the spread is done by asymptomatic people, so we would be able to identify individuals that are asymptomatic and remove them from the environment and eventually we would be able to get to zero,” he said.
Woo said testing people multiple times a week would be a good study, but that kind of testing probably isn’t feasible for schools.
“The ideal situation is that you can do daily rapid, noninvasive testing,” Woo said. “That would be helpful. We’re not quite there yet.”
East Central ISD leaders also looked into the testing capacity of sites in their area, located in south eastern Bexar County. The small, semi-rural district identified several sites that together have adequate testing capacity and are free in most cases, spokesman Brandon Oliver said.
However, ECISD officials remain concerned with the turnaround time of test results. They were hoping to find options offering a turnaround time of three days or less, but discovered area testing sites could not guarantee a quick response time.
The district is working with County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) to identify other opportunities for testing should a staff member or student become exposed to the coronavirus.
North East ISD Superintendent Sean Maika said it is important for districts to work with health authorities on this matter.
“It’s important for everybody to remember, we’re educators, we’re not health professionals,” Maika said.