PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — As children return to class — many for the first time since last year — the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) have partnered up to offer schools COVID-19 testing programs to help slow the spread and keep staff and students safe.
After successfully launching the free diagnostic testing program for students and staff last January, OHA and ODE are expanding their COVID-19 testing programs as part of the updated “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance for the 2021-22 school year.
“OHA is really excited to offer two types of testing programs to all K-12 schools in Oregon,” said Dr. Melissa Sutton, Medical Director of Respiratory Viral Pathogens at the Oregon Health Authority. “In addition to universal masking, physical distancing, and ventilation it’s one more thing we can do to help keep kids safe in schools.”
Dr. Sutton explained that in addition to the diagnostic testing for students and staff exposed to COVID-19 or experiencing symptoms, the joint agencies will now offer participating schools weekly opt-in COVID-19 screening tests for students. However, it’s unclear which schools are participating in this program.
“Screening testing refers to testing of students and staff without an exposure,” Dr. Sutton explained. “This type of testing targets unvaccinated individuals and really attempts to identify cases of COVID-19 without symptoms … It helps reduce transmission by trying to find those silent cases.”
This new screening program for students is in partnership with OHSU, the University of Oregon, Willamette Valley Toxicology, Santiam Hospital, and Sky Lakes Medical Center. The program for students is run separately from the COVID-19 screening tests for unvaccinated staff, introduced last April.
Dr. Sutton told KOIN 6 News why she believes both diagnostic and screening testing are particularly crucial for spaces with students. “We know that a significant portion of COVID-19 is asymptomatic, and we know children are more likely than adults to not have symptoms. So though we don’t know how much testing will reduce transition in schools, we know it that it will reduce transmission in schools.”
All programs for students are opt-in, meaning parents of participating schools would have the option to grant permission for their children to participate or choose to opt-out.
Director of the Oregon Department of Education, Colt Gill told KOIN 6 News “Testing is another one of those tools that helps us quickly identify those who have COVID-19 and make sure that they get the support that they need and that they don’t infect others around them.”
According to Gill, the testing programs in tandem with social distancing, face masks and other efforts will help make the transition to in-person school safer for everyone.
“Right now our north star is: ‘holding school safely and reliably, in person, full time for all of our students.’ That’s what we’re trying to get to in Oregon,” Said Gill. “To do that with the delta variant moving through, we need every health and safety protocol we can get our hands on!”
According to OHA, last year 90% of Oregon schools registered for the diagnostic testing program. To participate for the 2021 school year, schools must re-register through OHA.
Currently, more than 40 schools have registered for the screening program, according to officials; however, officials with ODE said they would not release a list until October. Registration is open now and will remain open throughout the school year.
KOIN 6 News has reached out to OHA for a list of participating schools.