Sioux City schools may offer in-school rapid tests for sick students

By: - September 7, 2021 5:44 pm

Iowa school districts were allowed to impose mask mandates under a temporary restraining order on state law. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

The Sioux City Community School District is poised to offer rapid COVID-19 testing in schools for sick students, a new mitigation strategy as Iowa students return to the classroom amid the surging delta variant.

“It helps to alleviate some of the busyness and craziness that occurs in our health care offices,” said Leslie Heying, communications director for the district. The tests would also offer “an added convenience” for families.

If implemented, students who show COVID-19 symptoms during the school day would go to a designated “caring room” to see the school nurse. There, the nurse or a certified nursing assistant would call the student’s parents and administer a rapid COVID-19 test. Rapid tests deliver results in a matter of minutes, whereas the more accurate PCR tests can take several days to return results.

Parents and guardians would need to give both written and verbal consent to allow their students to take a COVID-19 test at school.

Sioux City schools haven’t started the program yet — it’s still pending approval by the district’s board of directors. If approved, Sioux City could be one of the first Iowa districts to offer in-school testing. Heying and state-level education professionals said they were unaware of any other school districts with similar plans.

Instead, 19 school districts in Iowa have requested free at-home testing kits from the state, Department of Education spokesperson Heather Doe said. These tests, provided through the Department of Public Health, would return results several days later.

Iowa received $775 million in federal funds through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Plan. Those funds can be used for a wide range of COVID-19 response measures in schools, from improving ventilation systems to hiring additional staff members.

Doe said no Iowa school districts have requested ESSER reimbursement to date for surveillance or ad hoc testing programs. Heying said Sioux City schools plan to use ESSER funding to pay for in-school rapid testing if the program is approved.

Districts decide how to test, track and report COVID-19 data

Iowa school districts have broad authority — with one notable exception — to decide what COVID-19 tracking and mitigation measures to take. Under state law, districts may not impose a mask mandate on students, teachers and staff. But it’s up to school districts to decide how to test, track and report COVID-19 cases within a district.

Like last year, the Department of Education does not require school districts to share positive cases with the state.

“Schools are determining independently how best to alert their school community and whether to share case information with the public,” Doe said Tuesday.

Tammy Votava, communications director at the Iowa Association of School Boards, said that districts need to “consider the communication needs of their local communities” when deciding whether to publicly report COVID-19 cases in schools.

“If data is reported, our guidance from last year applies: Ensure it’s aggregate (not individually identifiable), understood, and consistent,” Votava wrote in an email to the Capital Dispatch.

Read more: Iowa public health director: School districts can decide what COVID-19 data to report

Democrats call for more federal funding, Reynolds says Iowa has ‘plenty’

The Biden administration in March announced $10 billion of federal funding for COVID-19 testing for students, teachers and staff members. The intention was to reopen schools that had not returned to in-person classes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends regular testing — including testing of asymptomatic students — as one of several COVID-19 mitigation measures in schools.

“Many people with COVID-19, especially children and teens, don’t have symptoms but can still spread the virus, so regular testing helps find people who have the virus before it can spread to others,” CDC guidance from August reads.

Reynolds rejected $95 million from that program in April, arguing that Iowa already brought students back to school and did not need the additional money. As students returned to the classroom last month for the 2021-2022 school year, Democrats called for Reynolds to reconsider and accept the $95 million.

“Those funds are needed more than ever by local schools who want to protect their communities,” wrote 18 Democratic senators in a letter to Reynolds. “The changes since April include a dramatic increase in new cases, the Delta variant sweeping the nation and impacting more children, and your law banning safe mask policies in public places.”

Reynolds stood firm on her decision not to accept the funding, telling reporters in August that there was “plenty of money” to address COVID-19 concerns in schools.

“[School districts] have money, we have money, DHS has money … It’s not a lack of funding,” Reynolds said.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.