The Warren County School Board held off this week endorsed a COVID-19 testing program after one member raised concerns.
The optional Virginia School Screening Testing for Assurance, or ViSSTA, program would provide money to divisions for supplies and staffing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and outbreaks, according Director of Special Services Michael Hirsch.
The program, through voluntary pool testing, intends to limit the number of in-person class days students may miss, Hirsch said. But board member Melanie C. Salins said she worried the program would have the opposite effect. Salins has been a vocal opponent of COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates in schools.
Board members Kristen J. Pence and Ralph A. Rinaldi also attended the meeting. James S. Wells arrived late and Vice Chairwoman Catherine R. Bower did not attend. Pence chaired the meeting and the work session that followed.
Superintendent Christopher Ballenger and Hirsch, in response to Salins’ comments, said the division cannot compel or require any student to participate in the testing. Parents must submit opt-in forms fo any child to participate. The state has not mandated school divisions to require testing through the program, officials said.
"Well, I think that we've been shown throughout COVID it always comes," Salins said, voicing skepticism that the state would not mandate the testing. "Over and over and over again we've been lied to. I think we would be stupid at this point to trust that this isn't gonna progress, and I get that their bribes are wonderful ... but they always come with a price."
The Virginia Department of Health has guided school divisions as they navigate through the pandemic, Hirsch said. Warren County would ask the department for a registered nurse to act as a COVID-19 response coordinator and two clinical support specialists, all of whom would develop a pool testing protocol, Hirsch said. The team will coordinate the distribution of personal protection equipment and assessment of schools mitigation strategies, Hirsch said.
The additional staff serve as a liaison between the division and a third-party vendor supplied by the health department to implement the voluntary pool testing. The division has not identified groups for testing as part of its responsibility in the program, Hirsch said.
All school divisions in the Lord Fairfax Health District await a memorandum of understanding they must approve before participating in the program and receiving the additional resources, Hirsch said.
A student quarantined for 10 days after exposure to COVID-19 can return to school after five days if he or she tests negative for the virus, using a rapid test, Hirsch said. The division encourages families to get their children tested so the students can return to school. However, the area faces a shortage of testing opportunities, Hirsch said.
Salins questioned the use of the rapid polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test, which she said is slated to be taken off the market at the year's end because of its 50% rate of producing false positives and it can’t tell the difference between the flu and COVID-19. The federal Food and Drug Administration announced in June that a company planned to recall a PCR test due to a risk of false negatives. Hirsch said he had not received any information to back Salins’ claims. Hirsch added that the division would act on recommendations from the vendors provided by the health department. Salins said the department is still recommending the use of the PCR test she cited. She clarified that the test is losing its emergency use authorization Dec. 31 because of the rate of false positives. Hirsch said he would ask the health department what happens after the deadline.
In response to a question from Salins, Hirsch said the division cannot require or compel any students, including athletes, or staff to participate in the pool testing. The division cannot prevent an athlete from playing sports who chooses not to participate in the testing, Hirsch said.
Superintendent Christopher Ballenger echoed Hirsch.
“But I do want to clarify that we would not just be pulling students (for testing),” Ballenger said. “They would have to have a form on file that the parent wanted to be part of the testing.”
But Salins further questioned the testing program, which she said would draw in students who may show no signs of infection.
“The problem is asymptomatic spread — it’s just not a thing,” Salins said. “So if we are testing perfectly healthy people, searching for disease, I mean, look at strep throat: There are natural strep carriers who will not be sick, will not be spreading the disease, but could test positive for strep.
“If we started just randomly testing people for strep, then quarantining everyone around, we would end up with more loss of learning time, more loss of athletics,” Salins said. “It’s not typical to test healthy people for these types of illnesses.”
Not all school divisions across the state chose to participate in the optional program, Hirsch acknowledged. But all schools in the region’s health district are participating, he said.
Hirsch said that the school division likely could receive more information about the program. This acknowledgement prompted School Board members to agree to continue its discussion about the program and delay action to a future meeting.
The school division would identify groups for testing, such as all students, all staff and specific extracurricular programs. The division would coordinate the collection of consent forms from students and staff; implement mitigation steps and guidance; and comply with reporting compliances. The division can receive testing support for special events such dances and when students return to school from vacation.
Also at the meeting, board members voted to:
• Schedule high school graduations for May 28 — Skyline High School at 8 a.m. and Warren County High School at 10 p.m.
• Authorize the superintendent to request that the Board of Supervisors increase the School Board’s fiscal 2022 operating fund budget by $4,062,640. The amount represents federal and state grants awarded to the division after the School Board adopted the operating fund budget on May 5. Supervisors must appropriate the grant amounts for the division to receive and spend the money. The division plans to spend $2,907,875 on instruction; $9,721 on operations and maintenance; $1,042,644 on facilities; and $102,000 on technology.
• Approve the renewal of the division’s fuel-oil contract with Fannon Petroleum Services Inc. for the period of Nov. 1-Oct. 31, 2022. The initial contract expires at the month's end. The supplier has proposed no pricing change. The total cost is 39,315.16
• Approve the 2021-2027 Warren County Public Schools Local Plan for the Education of the Gifted.
• Approve the positions of COVID Response Coordinator and two clinical support specialists. The positions would be funded through the Virginia Department of Health as part of the Virginia School Screening Testing for Assurance program. The division’s Department of Special Services plans to hire the positions to support ongoing COVID-19 mitigation efforts such as voluntary pool screening.
• Approve a request to increase the daily pay rate for substitute nurses from $90 to $100 and reflected in the school division salary scales manual. Director of Personnel and Communication Shane Goodwin said the division needed to bring the pay rates in line with that of substitute teachers. The board recently increased the pay rates for substitute teachers as a means to attract more applicants, Goodwin has said.