Lawrence is the only area school district to not yet install COVID-19 testing strategy to bypass quarantine; plan expected soon

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Lawrence Public Schools district offices pictured in April 2021.

The Lawrence school district is considering the possibility of adding a COVID-19 testing plan that would allow students to return to school within a day of being labeled a close contact, superintendent Anthony Lewis told the Journal-World.

“My expectation is that we are going to use testing to allow students to return the same day or the next day,” Lewis said.

Lewis said he expects school district employees — such as school nurses and other qualified staff — will provide the testing at each school site.

Lewis’ comments are the most specific yet from a district leader, and come after a school board meeting last week may have created some confusion about just how long the Lawrence school district has been notified that it could begin offering a program to allow students to test out of a COVID quarantine.

The Lawrence district — like all the rest in the county — received written notification from the local health department on Aug. 3 that it could apply to use a state-approved testing program designed to keep students in class during the pandemic.

But last week, Lewis made a statement at the district’s board of education meeting that may have left some listeners believing the testing option was relatively new.

He was highlighting recent changes made by Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health that allow for students to take a third-party PCR COVID test — like at an area pharmacy — and avoid at least part of their quarantine period by providing proof of the negative test result.

“Previously, you could not test out of quarantine, but with the new guidelines you can test out with a PCR test,” he said.

But that statement is not completely accurate. While the allowance of using a third-party provider to conduct testing is a new element, students in Kansas have been allowed to test out of their quarantine period since the beginning of the school year. Instead of using a third-party provider, district nurses or other personnel have been doing testing at school sites.

Without such a program in place, the Lawrence district has had large numbers of students who have not tested positive for COVID but are missing classes due to quarantine rules. In early September, the Journal-World reported there were about 400 students in the Lawrence district who were missing classes due to quarantine protocols. In the district’s most recent report, a total of 257 students and staff were in quarantine. In districts with state-approved testing plans, there are options for those students to return to school immediately, if they continue to test negative for the virus and be free of symptoms.

Lewis on Monday said he understands that since Aug. 3, the Lawrence school district has been free to apply to the state to begin a program that would allow students to test out of a COVID quarantine. He said he did not aim to imply that Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health had said the district could not use such a program. Rather, his point was that prior to the Aug. 3 announcement, the local health department had said testing out of a quarantine was not allowed for students.

That, however, raises the question of why Lawrence public schools has not implemented such a testing program to date. Lewis, on Monday, noted that the Lawrence district is quite a bit larger than some of the other area districts that have implemented the program. Figuring out the logistics of the testing program takes time, he said.

“We want to make sure it is sustainable and available at every building,” he said.

A testing program for the Lawrence district has not yet been finalized. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment does have to approve testing programs that use school staff to provide the tests. Lewis said he wasn’t certain of whether the district has formally applied to KDHE for approval. He said district administrators were scheduled to meet about the testing program on Tuesday.

Sonia Jordan, Lawrence Douglas County Public Health’s director of informatics, did provide information about what has been available and for how long in regards to testing programs for schools. On Sept. 10, Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health issued a new set of guidance for testing of K-12 students, which included the approval of third-party PCR tests as an accepted form of testing out of a portion of the quarantine period. But Jordan said the guidance issued on Sept. 10 was an “add on” to the KDHE plan, which has existed since the beginning of August.

The Journal-World reported in early August about the KDHE plan and that Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health had notified districts that they were eligible to use the plan. The Journal-World reported again in early September that the local health department had no objection to districts using the KDHE plan to allow students to test out of quarantine, and that in fact, some county school districts were using the testing program.

Currently, all of the other school districts serving Douglas County students — Baldwin City, Eudora and Perry-Lecompton — have begun using the KDHE plan, Jordan said. It calls for district staff to test students daily when they are deemed in close contact of a positive case to make sure they are negative for the virus and can continue to attend classes, bypassing quarantine orders altogether. KDHE also has $74 million in COVID-19 relief funding to cover the costs of the testing, according to the department’s website.

“That was all released by KDHE and endorsed by local health officers,” Jordan said. “Baldwin and Eudora were able to move on that and get it set up pretty much right when school started.”

Perry-Lecompton then set up the plan a few weeks ago, she said.

Lewis said he believes Lawrence will move forward with a plan that has district staff providing the testing, in part, because that is the process that allows for the quickest return to school by students. However, he also indicated parents may have the option of using a third-party provider for testing.

Based on the latest guidance from Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, though, such a third-party test would not allow a student to skip quarantine altogether. It allows students to “test out” of a 10-day quarantine by providing a PCR test taken on the sixth day after exposure. If it’s negative, the student can then return to in-person classes on the eighth day after exposure, cutting the quarantine shorter.

The on-site testing at the school allows for a quicker return because students are tested daily at the school, until their quarantine period would have ended.

School board members largely have not weighed in on the specifics of any testing programs.

School Board President Erica Hill said she was pleased the district was working on the issue, but did not specifically say if she preferred a specific testing plan.

“Throughout this pandemic, district leadership has worked closely with public health officers and staff members, and I’m pleased they continue to do so,” Hill said in an email. “I’m glad they’re looking at options to safely keep our students in school as much as possible.”

— Journal-World editor Chad Lawhorn contributed to this report.

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