With Covid infections in Flagler setting daily records–99 on Sunday, 105 on Monday–and school reopening for students on Aug. 10, the Flagler County school district, in a half-way shift, has agreed to begin offering rapid covid tests through the Flagler Health Department, enabling students who have been exposed to the virus not to be quarantined for 10 days. The district had previously opposed the option.
But participating students must agree to be tested every other day. And the testing will not take place at school campuses. Rather, it will be offered at two locations weekdays after hours, at no cost: at the county airport, across from Flagler Palm Coast High School, and at the Health Department’s offices on Dr. Carter Boulevard in Bunnell. The results are available in 15 minutes.
The Health Department revealed the rapid-testing option for students and staff today as the district itself published its new, 2021-22 school covid protocols, a four-page guide updating last year’s safety procedures. In contrast with conditions in the community, the protocols reflect a pronounced push for normalcy, as if Covid were no longer a serious problem. The protocols also reflect a focus on the importance of maintaining as close to a normal school learning environment as possible, in contrast with last year, when some learning was compromised in the name of health and safety. Even unvaccinated, students are at a far lower risk of illness and complication from covid than are adults, though students 12 and older do carry the virus and pass it on as do adults.
The Health Department had urged the district to adopt the rapid-test protocol and make it available at all nine of its school campuses. Imagine School at Town Center, the charter school, and eight private schools in the county, have agreed to do just that. The district, however, is not wanting to go that route for two reasons. “One was the logistics with how that would work on a school campus (testing locations, isolating close contacts, staffing, transporting students, parent notification, etc.),” David Bossardet, the district’s point man on covid protocols and safety, said in an email at the beginning of the month. “Another reason is that we have not conducted any Covid-19 testing on our campuses until this point and next year one of our focuses is to try to create as much of a traditional school environment as possible for our students (some of which will be on campus for the first time since March of 2020).”
But Bossardet said the district was still open to the compromise possibility the Health Department was offering–the off-campus rapid testing. Now it has embraced it.
“They acknowledge and and accept our initiative to provide parents, teachers and staff of the school districts with the option that would avoid quarantine, a 10 day quarantine of close contacts of confirmed cases,” Bob Snyder, the Health Department chief who’s been urging the district to adopt the protocol, said today. “The Abbott rapid test is sensitive enough to catch the virus at its at its most contagious phase, which is a 10 day period. If the student staff or teacher, tests negative, that will give them the green light to continue to stay in the classroom, extra curricular activities or sporting activities. But the protocol includes coming to us every other day.”
The rapid testing option is not mentioned in the back-to-school protocols issued today. Among the protocols’ highlights:
- “Face coverings are optional for all staff and visitors, and students.”
- No remote-live learning option.
- School buses will run at normal capacity.
- Drinking fountains will all be open. Parents will be allowed on campus.
- Parents and visitors will be allowed on campus as in pre-covid times.
- The use of school facilities by outside groups will resume as in pre-covid times.
- On-campus events such as “Meet the Teacher” and open house, as well as PTO, SAC, and other after-school activities will be held in person.
- Regarding meals, “Every effort will be made to maximize the distance between students in our cafeterias. The menu will offer wrapped food items as available. Each school has increased outdoor eating areas, where possible.”
On the other hand, the protocols caution that families and school staff “should be prepared for changes at any time,” and that the “public health crisis has not ended.”
“Surges or even smaller localized cases of COVID-19 could make changes to the school plan unavoidable,” the protocols state. “Flagler Schools leaders will continue to work closely with county health officials and other government officials while making decisions to maintain the safety and health of its learning environment.”
The district is leaving the door open to the possibility of one of more school going back to remote learning if necessary. But the protocols are focused on keeping learning going one way or another, including for quarantined students. The rapid-testing option, to the Health Department, works with that plan.
The exact hours for rapid testing have not been set. They will be set by Aug. 10, and will cover the hours between the end of school and early evening. The Health Department is beefing up its staff to make the testing available. The two rapid-testing stations will not be open to the general public–only to students, school staffers and their families.
The rapid-test option can make a very big difference in the lives of students and teachers. Last school-year, when a student or staffer tested positive, the Health Department carried out its contact-tracing to determine who else may have been exposed. Once it determined who was among those exposed, all those people were required to quarantine at home for 10 days regardless. With the rapid-testing option, that is no longer necessary in case of negative tests. However, students and staffers who do not agree to the 10-day protocol only have the alternative of a 10-day quarantine. There are no in-between choices.
“So we are very, very pleased, and just appreciate our continued partnership with the school district to allow this option to promote normalcy in classroom instruction,” Snyder said. “We believe this will be a great help, especially to parents who both have work during the day, and so that it won’t upset the family routine for these close contacts. So it’s just our way of monitoring the community and doing surveillance, so that we can keep kids in school.”
The rapid-testing is nothing new. Colleges and universities have been using it since last year–in fact, it is mandatory in most colleges and universities. Professional sports teams use it as a norm. So do many other organizations-and many school districts across the country, many of those making the rapid testing available on campus, as just another function at the nurse’s office.
The test “is not invasive at all,” Snyder said. It takes an anterior nasal swab for 15 seconds–five circles of the swab in one nostril, five circles in the other. Six drops of reagent are placed in a tiny hole in the testing card. The swab is inserted and the card sealed. You wait 15 minutes (preferably without reading disinformation about Covid or vaccines on social media), then watch for the result, oddly similar to a pregnancy test: two lines appearing means you’re positive. No lines means negative. Positive means you quarantine immediately. Negative means you go back to school.
As in colleges and universities, where students conduct their own tests and turn in their results, the Health Department will provide testing kits to participants for their days when they do not show up for a test, at least to relieve anxiety.