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About 50 more Washington schools to offer COVID-19 testing in push for in-person classes

School districts throughout Washington state continue to work on how to bring more students back into the classroom.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday that about 50 more schools will participate in a COVID-19 testing program as districts try to bring more students back to in-person classes.

Thirteen school districts have been participating in a testing pilot program, and the new schools will join them this month.

“This is yet another layer of confidence we want to offer people to go back to on-site classes,” Inslee said.

Officials emphasized that the testing programs will be tailored based on the school districts – some could be for students, staff or a combination of both, according to Inslee.

White River, Peninsula and Eatonville school districts were among those that participated in the pilot program in December. The goal was to isolate cases quickly and quarantine close contacts to slow the spread of COVID-19.

In the pilot, health officials performed 9,827 antigen tests on students, staff and family members in the White River, Peninsula and Eatonville school districts and got 29 positive results. All but one of the positive tests received a follow-up PCR test, and 19 cases were confirmed positive by that test, according to testing pilot end-of-year report.

Surveys of parents, faculty and staff found COVID-19 testing didn’t change how most respondents felt about returning to in-person learning, but some thought mandatory or daily testing would.

On Feb. 12, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines called for things such as hand washing, social distancing and masks but do not include a mandate for vaccinations in order to reopen schools.

Inslee has toured schools in Washington state to get a feel for what is currently being done to prevent the spread of coronavirus. His tour comes as a growing number of districts are bringing students back for in-person education.  

Between Aug. 1 and Dec. 31 of 2020, there were 84 coronavirus outbreaks reported in K-12 schools in 13 counties. There were 305 COVID-19 cases associated with the outbreaks, which were defined by two or more cases within two weeks of each other. Sixty-four percent of those outbreaks involved two or three cases. 

Dr. Laura Newman, COVID-19 outbreak response senior epidemiologist, said the report offered “encouraging news.”

Yet, teacher vaccinations have been a sticking point in districts big and small. Both Bellevue and Issaquah had difficult negotiations with their unions before allowing small children to return to class.

The Washington Education Association, the union that represents teachers, has said that if Washington wants to prioritize in-person learning, the state also needs to prioritize vaccinating teachers.

According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the latest figures suggest about 22% of the state's students are receiving some in-person instruction.