Atlanta Public Schools aims to test thousands weekly for COVID-19

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring describes the district's COVID-19 surveillance testing program at a news conference at M. Agnes Jones Elementary School on Jan. 25, 2021.  (STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring describes the district's COVID-19 surveillance testing program at a news conference at M. Agnes Jones Elementary School on Jan. 25, 2021. (STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Atlanta Public Schools is gearing up to test thousands of students and teachers weekly for the coronavirus — a $2 million screening program the district says will make it a pioneer in Georgia.

Voluntary surveillance testing will be used to detect positive cases of the coronavirus in individuals without symptoms so that they can be isolated to slow the spread of the disease in schools. The company providing the service estimated it could eventually administer 10,000 tests or more each week.

Testing started last week in a few elementary schools, which opened classrooms late last month. APS plans to expand to all schools by the end of February, making the district one of the state’s first public school systems to launch a robust testing program.

“The success of this mitigation strategy and our ability to return and keep students in school is based on high levels of staff and student participation,” Superintendent Lisa Herring said at a recent news conference. “Outside of the vaccine, we believe this is the next best thing that we can possibly do.”

APS announced the program as schools resumed in-person learning for the first time since March. It’s one of several strategies, including a mask mandate and social distancing, intended to make schools safer and reassure anxious employees who protested the reopening decision.

If carried out at the hoped-for scale, the testing effort will be a massive endeavor. Roughly 13,000 students indicated they want to learn in-person now, and more students could opt to return during the fourth quarter. Several thousand teachers and other employees are also back in buildings.

The district will not require tests, citing legal advice. The testing provider modeled its plan on 50% participation, but said it’s prepared for bigger numbers.

The initiative garnered praise from those on both sides of the reopening debate, but some safety advocates said the district needs to do more to gain employee trust and ensure their protection.

Fulton County COVID-19 case numbers, while dropping over the last few weeks, remain roughly four times higher than they were in the fall. Recent educator deaths in nearby districts also rattled Atlanta teachers.

Chris Rhodenbaugh, a Grady High School teacher, said the district didn’t provide enough information about the testing program ahead of the Feb. 16 scheduled reopening of middle schools and high schools.

“There is a significant gap between the district’s public communication and the reality on the ground. And that is going to lead to schools being less safe and teachers being more stressed,” he said. “The district is reacting, and they’re not strategizing.”

Only 12 of his students across three civics classes are expected to return to the Midtown building. He said he’s willing to call each family and ask them to enroll their child in the program. He would tell parents he plans to get tested and that he would feel safer if their children did too.

The more people participate in surveillance testing, the greater the potential protections. Georgia universities, which started surveillance testing months ago as a tool to contain the virus, dangled incentives to get students to take a test.

University of Georgia students could pick up free Starbucks coffee and Chick-fil-A coupons when they stopped for a COVID-19 test. Georgia Tech organized competitions among residence halls and entered participants into a drawing for a prize package that featured a campus parking permit and lunch with the university president.

That’s the kind of planning Rhodenbaugh wants APS to do to give the program the best chance at succeeding. Others also share concerns about how APS is handling the reopening.

Atlanta Public Schools teachers march around the district's downtown  headquarters to push for a delay in reopening school buildings on Jan. 16, 2021.  Hyosub Shin /AJC FILE PHOTO


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The parent and employee group We Demand Safety APS called surveillance testing a step in the right direction, with “miles to go.”

But for some who want Atlanta school buildings to remain open, the program helps to make that happen safely. John Haliburton plans to give permission for his two sons at E. Rivers Elementary School to be tested.

“I think it’s a great idea to have as many tests as possible,” he said. “I think this testing system is huge, and I’m so thankful and grateful that the superintendent and APS leadership will make it happen.”

The district picked eight elementary schools to start testing. Viral Solutions, an Atlanta-based testing company that formed in July, will provide the service.

APS did not seek multiple bids for the work. A spokesman said professional medical services fall under a state exemption that does not require a competitive process.

The test requires swabbing the front of the nose, or about “as deep as you would go” if you were picking it, said Dr. Benjamin Lefkove, the company’s CEO and cofounder.

A test takes about one minute per person, and it feels like a tickle, he said. Results from the rapid antigen tests will be available within 24 hours, according to the district.

Georgia districts have significant flexibility to reopen buildings as they see fit. The Georgia Department of Public Health said at least one other system, Marietta City Schools, implemented a testing program. That program, a recently completed partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had a more limited scope than surveillance testing. Marietta is developing another program.

Rockdale County Public Schools is offering tests to students, employees and their households at rotating school sites.

APS plans to update its online COVID-19 case counts with positive results discovered during surveillance testing. The online tally currently includes weekly self-reported cases. For the week ending Feb. 5, APS recorded positive cases for 14 employees and 7 students.

Atlanta Public Schools’ surveillance testing

Provider: Viral Solutions, LLC

Test type: Rapid antigen

Participation: Voluntary

Testing frequency: All schools, weekly

Program cost: estimated $2 million