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NC Health Officials Say Rapid COVID-19 Testing Should Be Part Of School Safety

Cotswold Elementary math facilitator Arikka Stevens does a temperature scan on the first day of in-person classes Monday.
Ann Doss Helms
Cotswold Elementary math facilitator Arikka Stevens does a temperature scan on the first day of in-person classes.

North Carolina health officials said Thursday they want to make rapid testing for COVID-19 a part of the safety plan for public and private schools, and they say they’ve got money to make it happen.

Since students started returning to classrooms, most schools have relied on temperature checks and questions about symptoms and exposure to keep people from spreading the coronavirus. COVID-19 testing has been used mostly for people who develop symptoms.

But Dr. Aditi Mallick, director of the state’s COVID-19 operations center, told the state Board of Education the latest research shows rapid antigen testing is far more effective. The state wants schools to use it for screening staff and students on a regular basis when no symptoms are present. Parents would have to consent to student testing.

"That sort of weekly screening testing has been shown to reduce in-school infections by up to 50%," she said. "So (it's) really a helpful means of stopping transmission, even as we are ramping up vaccinations statewide."

Mallick said the state has money from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to offer the tests at no cost to any K-12 school that wants to screen employees and students.

"That includes public schools, private schools, charter schools across the state," she said.

For now, it’s up to the schools to find someone to administer the tests, which can produce results in about 15 minutes. Starting next fall, she said, the state plans to contract with a vendor who can support statewide screening tests. The money is available this month and will last through July of 2022.

"Our sincere hope is that schools will be excited to take advantage of this opportunity," Mallick said.

Mallick says the screening would be done in addition to other safety measures, such as wearing masks, washing hands and keeping safe distances.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.