Less than half of Kansas school districts are participating in COVID testing strategies from KDHE
As local boards of education debate the need for mask mandates amid the COVID-19 resurgence, less than half of school districts are participating in the state's testing strategies.
"Schools should be the first to reopen and the last to close," said Joan Duwve, the deputy state health officer for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. "This is how important this is for kids in Kansas."
Testing is important for preventing coronavirus clusters at schools, Duwve said Wednesday during a virtual meeting of the governor's Kansas COVID-19 Equity Task Force. The same day, the KDHE reported five new outbreaks at K-12 schools across the state.
"Our testing strategy is called Stay Positive Test Negative," Duwve said. "The mission is to provide districts with funding and resources to design and implement COVID-19 testing strategies in order to reduce outbreaks, keep schools open and minimize absenteeism. So having strategies and plans that are actionable, and that incentivize school in parent participation is the goal."
The testing strategies use millions of dollars in federal pandemic aid, but most districts aren't taking advantage of the money..
"Participation so far has actually been pretty good," Duwve said. "... By and large, the majority of school districts are interested, and we are working with them. We have over 75 schools that have started testing on site this week."
Of the 286 public school districts, 20% have testing plans approved by the KDHE while an additional 26% have submitted budget proposals and are still being processed.
Another 21% of districts were interested in the testing strategies but have not submitted a budget to the KDHE, 13% had no interest in participating and 20% have not responded to inquiries from state health officials.
Kansas school districts encouraged to apply for ELC Grant Funds to cover testing costs
Gov. Laura Kelly's administration has urged districts to apply for the ELC Grant Funds. Kansas received $87 million to fund equipment, testing and medical staff to help prevent COVID-19 from spreading at schools, and $74 million must go directly to schools.
"We know our children belong in the classroom, but it’s critical that we provide Kansas school districts with support and tools they need to keep our kids safe," Kelly said last month when announcing reopening guidance for schools.
The grants are available to all 286 public school districts, as well as private schools, and Duwve asked people for help spreading the word.
"If you work at all with your school, a neighborhood school district or school districts in your counties, and you know that they maybe are hesitant to participate, please encourage them to participate," she said.
While some private schools have reached out to the KDHE, Duwve said the state agency doesn't have a good way to contact all private schools.
"If there are private schools that you know about, maybe your kids go to a private school or your neighbors who go to a private school, check to see if if they know about this program," she said.
Information about school-based testing and federal grants is available online at www.coronavirus.kdheks.gov/295/School-Based-Funding.
The money is used on detection and prevention of COVID-19, focusing on screening and testing for mitigation, though it may also be used for vaccine promotion.
KDHE has three COVID testing plans and a vaccine plan for school districts
The KDHE has three testing plans and one vaccine plan for districts to consider in cooperation with the local health officer. State officials developed the plans with an advisory group that included superintendents, teachers, staff, school nurses and coaches.
"I love that this is not a one size fits all strategy, but a flexible testing strategies that was specifically designed so that schools could adopt any or all of the plans, or strategies within a plan, so that this can be responsive to the local needs," Duwve said.
The first plan, called Test to Know, is a strategy that Duwve said "provides diagnostic testing at each school or at a central location for students, teachers and staff who becomes symptomatic during the school day, or those who have had potential exposures to COVID-19."
The second plan, called Test to Stay and Learn, "is a strategy that keeps students healthy, and continues in-school learning and participation in extracurricular activities by testing susceptible close contacts every day."
Under the strategy, close contacts who wear a mask and are tested every day for 10 days may stay in school and avoid an at-home quarantine.
The third plan — Test to Stay, Play, and Participate — "involves weekly screening testing for people participating in high-risk extracurriculars like athletics or choirs or orchestra, anything that could serve as a super-spreader event," Duwve said.
Public health officials have been discouraged by the relatively low levels of testing in the state. The KDHE's new county COVID-19 rankings use testing levels in local communities as one of the key measures of the pandemic.
"It's going to be so important for us to keep testing as a very critical tool in our arsenal, especially as we know that school is getting started," said Marci Nielsen, the governor's chief adviser for COVID-19 coordination, during the task force meeting. "We're going to have kids working working side by side in the classroom and we want to be able to keep those kids and those teachers safe.
"And of course, they're not yet eligible for vaccination."
Vaccinations are available to children as young as 12 years old but have not yet received emergency-use authorization for younger kids.
About 14.4% of all people in the under-18 age group in Kansas have gotten at least one dose. However, youth vaccination rates vary by race and ethnicity in Kansas.
State data as of Wednesday shows about 11.5% of white children have been vaccinated, compared to 9.8% of Black children, 4.1% of Native American children, 20% of Asian children and 8.9% of Pacific Islander children.
About 12.5% of Hispanic or Latino children are vaccinated, compared to 13.5% of children who aren't Hispanic or Latino.