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Guest opinion: The technology exists for fast, daily coronavirus testing, but the U.S. has been slow to adapt.

At Trinity Academy, the school where I teach in North Portland, we have spent much of the summer meeting with a task-force including faculty, parents and public health experts, to determine how to safely reopen the school for partially in-person education in accordance with state guidelines. We recently found out that plan was on hold; all schools statewide will be remote-only until certain state- and county-level thresholds for containing the coronavirus have been reached.TOMASSI

Students need to return to school. But they need to do so safely — if not, schools could become virus-spreading hotspots. Until we have a vaccine, there's only one way to do that: rapid daily testing of every student, faculty and staff member. This kind of testing is possible, so why don't we do it?

Where I teach, we decided to go to "remote learning" on March 14. Four days later, our school started back up online. Our experiment with remote learning seems to have gone remarkably well. Parents who have children in multiple schools told us how impressed they were with the seamless transition, the level of education, and the engagement of their children. But it was far from perfect. Most teachers were not able to get through all the material they had planned to. Most students struggled more with distraction and motivation. And children from more difficult socioeconomic backgrounds tended to have a much harder time keeping up, due in part to tighter living quarters and less parental supervision. Students who cannot afford to attend private schools fared much worse.

We entered the summer hopeful that the fall would bring a return to in-person education. Now parents and students face remote learning again, potentially for months. Across the state and around the country, the story is similar. Students will fall further behind. Parents who cannot work from home have few options. Many students who receive supportive services such as counseling and free or reduced lunch will go without. These and other serious public health risks led the American Academy of Pediatrics to call for a return to in-person education.

There is significan resistance to the idea or reopening schools in the midst of a pandemic, and for good reason. While children are unlikely to have serious illness as a result of the coronavirus, recent study of a sleepover camp in Georgia published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that children can efficiently catch and spread the virus. In a school setting, they could bring it to school and sicken teachers, and bring it home to parents and elderly relatives. As things stand, many believe it is too risky to return to school.

But what if it were possible to test everyone before they got to school? It sounds like a pipe-dream. When I was tested recently, I was informed that I could expect results within two to seven days, "but this may take longer due to lab capacity." Testing of this kind would do nothing to prevent the virus from spreading around a school.

Dr. Michael Mina of the T. H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard thinks there is a solution: rapid paper-strip tests that could cost about $1 a day. As Mina wrote in a rcent New York Times opinion piece, tests like this have already been developed by a number of laboratories and companies. They give results in 15 minutes, and can be administered at home with a nasal swab or saliva sample.

So why don't we have them? These tests have received pushback because they are "low-sensitivity," unlike the lab test I took, and right now, the FDA is not approving them. But Mina explains that this language is misleading. While the virus is incubating, a paper-strip test would give a negative result. Likewise after recovery. But that person would not have enough virus in their system to transmit it. The tests are effective at catching cases once the person has enough virus copies to get others sick. In a pre-published study, Mina and his colleagues show that frequent testing is vastly more important than sensitivity-level in terms of preventing the spread of the virus.

We need these tests in order to reopen schools safely. Students could be required to take them before they leave home, and only allowed to attend school if they had a negative test. It is time that everyone — parents, teachers, students, elected officials, and the general population — start demanding that rapid, daily, at-home tests be made available.

Patrick Tomassi teaches junior high and high school math and science at Trinity Academy in North Portland. Twitter: @patricktomassi


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