Students and teachers who get sick at school may soon be able to find out in minutes if they have COVID-19.
The state has sent more than 30,000 rapid tests to local school districts as part of an initiative to help control the spread of the virus. A nurse or other health official can administer the test to students or employees with COVID-19 systems, and results will be available in 15 minutes.
Palm Beach Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy announced this week that 9,000 tests will be administered after Thanksgiving. Parents will be sent home permission slips. The Miami-Dade School District, which has received about 17,280 tests, is still finalizing plans, a spokeswoman said.
Broward has received about 5,800 tests, but the office of Chief Communications Officer Kathy Koch referred all questions about the district’s plans to the state.
The hope from Gov. Ron DeSantis, who received these BinaxNOW rapid antigen test tests free from the federal government, is to make students and teachers feel safer and reduce the need to quarantine or isolate large numbers of students.
But the plan is met with skepticism by some parents, educators and health experts, who question how reliable they are. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say rapid tests “may be more likely to miss a current infection than molecular tests," such as the RT-PCR tests, which test for the virus’ genetic material and often take several days for results.
“It’s beneficial when it’s positive. When it’s negative, it’s not dependable,” said Dr. Mobeen Rathore, a pediatrician with the University of Florida who is past president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
So far, 82,280 tests have been sent statewide, and they’re available for district-run and charter schools. When announcing the effort last month, DeSantis said it could reduce the need to isolate or quarantine healthy students who may have been exposed to someone with a possible, but not confirmed, COVID-19 case.
“If a student becomes sick, you take the student and isolate them and give them a 15-minute test,” he said. “Then if it’s negative, you don’t have to worry about isolating some of these other students."
DeSantis and his education chief, Richard Corcoran, have been strong advocates for schools staying open and minimizing quarantines.
But it’s unclear whether these tests would actually affect how many students are isolated. Current guidance from local health departments is to quarantine students who were directly exposed to someone with a confirmed case, not someone merely showing symptoms.
Still, Dr. Belma Andric, the chief medical officer for the Health Care District of Palm Beach County, told the School Board last month she had researched the tests and found they had good reviews.
“This test is good. It gives us rapid answer during early infection, and those are the kids that arrive in the health room with symptoms," she said.
Miramar parent Melissa Ramos called the test a “great step in the right direction," but she said contact tracing still needs to improve.
Rachel Archambault, a speech language pathologist at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, was less optimistic.
“It might be a false negative due to when they were exposed. This does not make me feel safer. In fact, I feel less safe,” she said.
Rapid tests are also being sent to state-supported testing sites, long-term care facilities and senior living communities daily “to ensure all Floridians have access to this critical resource," said Samantha Bequer, press secretary for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. She said the tests will continue to be distributed to counties that have used their initial allocation and request additional shipments.
“These rapid tests are another tool in Florida’s COVID-19 response to ensure that Floridians have every resource they need to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 in their communities,” she said. “The division looks forward to continue working with Florida’s school districts to ensure they have access to these tests.”
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