PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The state of Rhode Island is planning to start doing surveillance testing of asymptomatic K-12 students, families and teachers, Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green revealed Tuesday.
The surveillance testing will start with a pilot program later this year in Providence, Central Falls and Lincoln schools, Infante-Green said, which will help inform a statewide testing program for K-12 schools after the new year.
Infante-Green revealed the plan in a meeting of the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.
The goal is to have a more “proactive” testing strategy, she told the council, and will include PCR, saliva and rapid testing.
Infante-Green said she anticipated the program starting next week, but Department of Health spokesperson Joseph Wendelken described it as still in the planning phase.
“We don’t have those plans worked out yet,” Wendelken said in an email. “We’re not yet there, in terms of being able to implement a program. We are still doing planning.”
Wendelken said the state has 40,000 of the saliva tests the commissioner mentioned, though it’s not clear how many of those will be earmarked for the K-12 program.
Up until now, the state has used a K-12 testing system that encourages those with symptoms and close contacts of positive cases to get tested at designated sites for students and teachers, administering both rapid and PCR tests, the latter of which are considered more accurate but take more time to provide results.
The K-12 testing program has so far uncovered more than 1,000 cases among students and teachers going to school in person since the start of the school year, and roughly 550 among virtual school attendees.
The exact prevalence of COVID-19 among school populations has been difficult to quantify without surveillance testing though, as children can often be asymptomatic.
Surveillance testing has been used in Rhode Island by colleges and universities, nursing homes and prisons during the pandemic in an effort to mitigate outbreaks.
The state’s two largest teachers unions have called for in-person learning to be paused during the latest surge of the virus in Rhode Island, but Gov. Gina Raimondo and Infante-Green have prioritized keeping students in school safely.
The state is currently awaiting a massive order of 6,100 air purifiers with HEPA filters, set to arrive in late November, which will be placed in every classroom to promote better air turnover without needing to open windows in winter.
Also Tuesday night, RIDE introduced its new five-year strategic plan to the council, as the current plan is set to expire at the end of the year. The new plan, which runs from 2021 to 2025 and is expected to be finalized in December, sets new goals for math and English proficiency, absenteeism, graduation rates and more statewide by 2025.