CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s pilot program to test asymptomatic students and staff for the coronavirus will begin Tuesday at Ella Risk Elementary school in Central Falls, according to the R.I. Department of Education.
The so-called “surveillance” testing is voluntary and will be offered to every staff member and student, according to a letter sent home to parents along with a consent form.
“Your student’s school is being provided a supply of BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Test Cards,” the letter from RIDE said. “These tests have been made available to [the R.I. Department of Health] from the federal government. All students, staff, and teachers at pilot schools are being offered testing through this program free of charge. This pilot program will be one-time only, but future testing may be continued depending on supplies.”
In addition to the rapid BinaxNOW tests — which promise results within an hour — the students and staff will receive a PCR test, which is sent to a lab and takes longer to provide results.
The letter says the PCR is being used in conjunction with the rapid test in order to evaluate the accuracy of the BinaxNOW antigen test, which is relatively new to Rhode Island’s testing portfolio.
Testing will take place at Ella Risk on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to spokesperson Emily Crowell, and then will move to Raíces Dual Language Academy on Thursday and Friday.
The two days of testing at each school is aimed at capturing all students who attend school in person, since some students alternate days between distance learning and in-person school.
“We’re hopeful this will be just another way to continue to keep our students and staff healthy and our schools safe,” Central Falls Superintendent Stephanie Downey-Toledo said in an email Monday.
Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green first revealed earlier this month that Rhode Island would start doing surveillance testing in K-12 schools, an approach that is already used in nursing homes, prisons and colleges in the state.
Central Falls, Providence and Lincoln were chosen for the pilot program, which is expected to help inform a statewide K-12 testing program in the new year. The state’s existing K-12 testing system has been focused on those with symptoms or who have been exposed to a positive case of the virus.
Providence and Central Falls are currently the communities with the highest rate of infections in the state, while Infante-Green said the suburban Lincoln district was chosen for the pilot because it is different from the other two.
Providence and Lincoln students and staff will likely get tested the second week of December, according to Department of Health spokesperson Joseph Wendelken. The specific schools that will do testing in those two districts has also not yet been announced.
Overall, the pilot program is expected to test 2,800 people, Wendelken said.
Elementary and middle schools are remaining open during the two-week “pause” in Rhode Island that began Monday as a surge of coronavirus cases has filled hospitals to capacity.
High schools were asked — but not required — to move to 25% capacity during the pause, while some indoor settings like gyms, bar areas and sports facilities were closed down, and restaurants and retail remain open with capacity limits.
Teachers unions have repeatedly called for all schools to revert to remote learning as cases rise, but Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration has argued virus rates are no higher in schools than for those learning virtually, and in-person school has a myriad of other benefits compared to distance learning.
The surveillance testing could help provide a more accurate picture of that virus rate in schools, though it’s unclear whether the testing will be extended to those who are learning virtually during the two days the testing is taking place, either because they are enrolled in full-time distance learning or because of a temporary quarantine.