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Superintendents Ask State To Address COVID-19 Testing Issues

classroom scene with teacher at whiteboard
Taylor Wilcox
The Florida Channel
The state continues to push for a return to in-person education, educators have expressed concerns.

As Florida schools reopen this month, district superintendents are calling on state officials to address two major challenges: the need for rapid testing for COVID-19 and a statewide plan to handle students and staff members who test positive.

Florida Association of District School Superintendents President Michael A. Grego told Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on Friday that “state direction is imperative” to ensure school districts have access to rapid test results and school officials know what to do when people show symptoms or test positive for the deadly respiratory illness.

“Clear and articulate processes for the role of the Department of Health as the lead in case investigation, contact tracing and quarantine direction, length and implementation are essential and must be consistent across all school districts,” Grego, the Pinellas County superintendent, wrote in a letter to Corcoran.

Grego added the availability of tests and rapid results for students and staff members will be “critical” when school campuses reopen.

“The support of all state and private health care agencies to prioritize the availability of testing and rapid results of students and staff members will be critical,” he wrote. “The availability of these tests could significantly reduce the time students and school personnel are absent from school and corresponding disruptions that come from the need to wait days, or weeks, for results.”

The requests for statewide guidance came as teachers, students and school employees in a dozen counties return to in-person instruction this week amid the pandemic and as districts across the state prepare to start classes later this month.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Corcoran have been resolute that all school districts need to offer in-person instruction to parents who want to send their kids back to school, after the pandemic forced campuses to shut down in March and required students to shift to online learning. DeSantis and Corcoran reiterated that view Monday during a news conference in Riverview.

“When you don’t offer any in-person instruction … that would be denying a huge swath of parents the ability to make a meaningful choice,” DeSantis said.

In pressing Corcoran for statewide guidance on rapid testing and contact tracing, superintendents said statewide protocols would help with "public transparency and trust."

"As the lead for all case investigation, contact tracing and quarantine processes, it is my understanding that the state surgeon general is in the process of developing such statewide guidance," Grego wrote. “As superintendents, we feel it is imperative that we have these statewide protocols to guide our collaboration as soon as possible so we can provide more explicit guidance for our school leaders and clear information to our staff and community at large."

Grego added that it would be “greatly appreciated if written protocols and matrices were developed and distributed alongside sample situations for both elementary and secondary schools that demonstrated scenarios for implementation in alignment with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Department of Education spokeswoman Taryn Fenske declined to comment about whether Corcoran plans to address the concerns raised by Grego on behalf of superintendents. 

"We appreciate working with them and their feedback,” Fenske said in an email Monday. 

In late July, Surgeon General Scott Rivkees said the state Department of Health was working on a plan to make sure rapid testing is available to schools.

"This is something the Department of Health is working on, in terms of making sure we have quick-testing available for schools in the event students need to be tested," Rivkees said in a statewide phone call with hospital officials on July 28. 

In the call, Orlando Health officials told Rivkees they were concerned the hospital may not have the capacity to test a large number of students and school staff members if there is a COVID-19 outbreak at a school.

Concerns about testing at schools were raised again last week during Rivkees' weekly statewide call with hospital officials.

Department of Health spokesman Alberto Moscoso has not responded to The News Service of Florida’s requests for information about the state’s rapid testing plans for schools since July 28.

A lack of state guidance on the issues highlighted in Grego's letter has been felt as school districts have worked on plans to safely reopen.

Pasco County school officials, for example, have had discussions with health officials about having rapid tests available, but no specific plans have been nailed down, district spokesman Stephen Hegarty told the News Service on Monday.

Hegarty said the Pasco district is “very interested” in having rapid tests available during the fall because quicker results could reduce the time an employee or student would need to be away from school. Officials already have plans in place to do contact tracing in case students or employees test positive for COVID-19.

But Hegarty acknowledged “it would have been easier” if the state would have offered a standard protocol early on.

“Having uniformity statewide is important for public confidence,” he said.

--- News Service staff writer Christine Sexton contributed to this report.