Lawrence school district to begin COVID-19 testing program for students, staff next week

photo by: Sylas May/Journal-World Illustration

Some students and staff of the Lawrence school district will soon be tested for the coronavirus while at school.

The Lawrence school district’s COVID-19 task force explained to the school board Monday a new initiative to provide a testing program for students and staff that will begin next week. The program is meant to first get a baseline for the prevalence of COVID-19 cases in the school district and then help identify and mitigate asymptomatic cases that could be leading to the spread of the virus.

Patrick Kelly, a member of the task force, told the board that the tests are covered by federal coronavirus relief funding. He said the program will only include people who have opted into participating, and that only students who are participating in hybrid in-person learning will be able to take part. So far, he said about 1,900 families have provided consent for their children to participate and 850 staff members have opted in. It wasn’t clear whether there was a deadline for families wanting to opt into the testing program.

Through the program, all staff and 25% of the students will be tested for the initial baseline measurement. Then, ongoing screening will test 25% of staff and 10% of students each month. Results are expected to be provided within 48 hours of the test, and they will be shared with the district and Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health.

The board had questions about how the testing will affect the community’s overall positivity rate, which is used in the health department’s virus guidance to schools. Board members had concerns that testing those who are not showing signs of the virus could give them a false sense of security when they test negative. Health department Director Dan Partridge said the testing program could cause the positivity rate to fall, but it would also help identify asymptomatic cases that otherwise would not have been discovered.

“Hopefully we’ll take a little pain right now and be able to have fewer cases later,” Partridge said.

More information about the screening program can be found on the district’s website,

In other business, the board reviewed feedback from the community about how school is being conducted amid the coronavirus pandemic. The district received about 4,000 comments through Thoughtexchange, an online communication tool that collects comments from the public.

Laura Milne, a representative for Thoughtexchange, gave the board members a breakdown of the responses the program received, showing that many comments belonged to one of two camps: those who want to use fully remote learning and those who want schools to return to fully in-person learning. Of the thousands of responses the district received, 775 were from those who called for fully remote learning and about 700 were from those who wanted to return to fully in-person learning.

A third portion of that data examined the areas where those two groups had similar responses. Those included comments expressing concern about the district’s communication and transparency when making decisions. Milne’s report didn’t show how big these overlaps were between the two groups.

The district plans to publicly release a full report on the community feedback soon.

Additionally, with a 3-4 vote, the board failed to formally adopt the health department’s school virus guidance, which would have given Superintendent Anthony Lewis the authority to close schools and cancel athletic events and other activities when the guidance recommends it.

The board members who voted against adopting the guidance said they wanted to add additional criteria for the district to consider, such as specific guidelines around incidence rates for the virus. They had earlier expressed concern about the health department’s guidance using an average positivity rate as its primary factor, saying that the number of people being tested in the community has not been consistent.

The board then directed the district’s administration to work with the health department to develop new guidelines for the district that include the consideration of incidence rates.

The board scheduled a meeting for Dec. 3 to consider adopting the newly developed version of the guidance. In the meantime, the board also agreed to continue following the health department’s current guidance until a new version is adopted.

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