The Texas Education Agency is accepting applications for a statewide program to distribute millions of rapid COVID-19 tests to schools across the state.
The program, which uses tests purchased by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, aims to help schools conduct testing of employees and students to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus on school campuses. Students’ parents and employees would be required to give consent before being tested.
In a call with superintendents across the state, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Thursday the tests will be available to any school district offering in-person instruction to all students who want it.
“This is about supporting on-campus instruction, and we have a limited supply of these tests,” Morath said. “As a result, we have to make sure we’re using them for their highest, best purpose.”
Eight smaller districts piloted the testing program earlier this month, including Ysleta, Longview, Granger, Lampases and Fabens ISDs; Harlingen CISD and several charter and private schools. Houston ISD submitted an application for the tests Wednesday, and state officials said distribution will begin to private and public schools in a matter of days.
The tests will be allotted based on each school system’s size and the percentage of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in each of the state’s trauma service regions in a given month.
For example, Houston ISD, which is located in a trauma service region with a hospital positivity rate of less than 7 percent, would receive 31,453 tests for 280 campuses in November. That would be roughly enough to test campus staff about once a month, along with a few additional tests. El Paso ISD, which is located in an area where hospitals have been overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases, would receive 30,383 tests for 85 campuses, enabling staff to be tested once a week with some tests left over.
States began receiving shipments of Abbott BinaxNOW Rapid COVID-19 tests after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a bulk purchase in September. The tests use a nasal swab and measure active cases of the virus in about 15 minutes.
“When we think about the rapid COVID testing project, it really rests in those two areas of preventing people who have the virus from walking on campus — in this case, asymptomatic people who may not be getting caught in screening protocols — and improving the response when that happens as well,” Morath said.
Districts largely will be able to use the tests as they deem appropriate, with some exceptions. The tests only can be distributed to students and staff with permission, and they will not be offered to on-campus visitors or family members of students or staff. Public schools will be required to report the test results to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Longview ISD, which educates about 8,500 students in East Texas, received about 2,000 of the rapid tests earlier this month as part of the state’s pilot program. Dennis Miller, assistant superintendent of administrative and pupil services who serves as Longview’s COVID testing coordinator, said he and the district’s 25 nurses were required to take a couple of courses to learn to administer the tests and had to test negative themselves before they were allowed to evaluate others.
Of 91 tests administered to staff across the district since Oct. 20, Miller said four came back positive. Two of the positive tests were logged in staff who exhibited no symptoms.
“It’s a little bit of a relief to know we have this tool along with our other tools,” Miller said. “We’re cleaning and disinfecting, but you can do all that and still have someone who’s asymptomatic — they could spread and not even know. It’s just kind of a way to keep the school community as safe as possible.”