Teacher union leaders on Thursday called for a new state policy enabling COVID-19 surveillance testing in all school districts across the state.
Some districts have moved forward with intermittent testing of a portion of students and staff, but state teacher union leaders said only a small percentage of districts in the state have done so.
“Large-scale testing is not happening in our schools and that needs to change,” New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta said during a press conference Thursday, nothing New York City schools had set up a school-based testing system. “There’s no reason we can’t do it for all K-12 schools too.”
Pallotta called on the state Department of Health to develop a statewide policy outlining how districts should test a portion of students and staff attending in-person school in order to keep a handle on asymptomatic spread.
Fred Kowal, president of the statewide United University Professions, which represents State University of New York employees, joined to bolster the case for testing at K-12 schools by highlighting the widespread testing that has occurred on SUNY campuses this school year. Kowal said along with wearing masks and social distancing the testing system has been critical in enabling on-campus activities to happen this year.
“That’s the only way to protect our communities and do the jobs we love to do,” Kowal said.
Teacher union leaders even highlighted the role testing played in a successful NFL season this year, where daily testing helped teams identify and quickly contain potential COVID-19 outbreaks.
“Daily testing became the lynchpin,” said DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, the union that represents professional football players. “Every one of our experts told us it was a necessary condition of finishing a season.”
The union leaders argued funding should not be an issue to increase testing, noting the cost and difficulty of administering tests has fallen as their accuracy has increased and highlighting federal stimulus funds that should be coming to schools to support things like testing. But they said the state Department of Health should outline for schools consistent testing guidelines that can be implemented across the state.
Districts have been empowered to begin testing on their own, but Pallotta said a survey of their members found only 57 out of over 700 districts in the state that were conducting testing.
A review of the state’s school-based COVID reporting website suggest inconsistent testing in districts across the Capital Region. Most districts in the region didn’t provide any testing information on the site, which includes a place for district to report the number of tests administered on site, including at least some districts that have conducted some testing in recent months. Other districts have carried out some tests but not on a consistent and recurring basis. Less than one-third of Capital Region districts indicated any amount of school-based testing on the state website.
“It is wrong (testing) is not happening in the state. It should be and it should’ve been all along,” Pallotta said. “We need to see a statewide program where every school, every parent knows what’s going on in their schools.”
Counties – not school districts – to report teacher vaccination data
Local counties are working with area school districts to determine how many teachers have been vaccinated, a number they will soon report publicly.
While governor Cuomo last month said school districts would be reporting how many of their teachers had been vaccinated, a revised executive order later shifted the reporting responsibility to local municipalities.
“Every local health department shall report the number of eligible P-12 teachers and the number of eligible P-12 school staff vaccinated,” in a manner determined by state officials, according to the Feb. 26 executive order.
State Department of Health spokesperson Jill Montag on Wednesday said the state agency was “working with the counties to finalize the collection of this data,” but did not specify whether the vaccination data would be reported at the school district-level or as a total of teachers within the county.
Erin Roberts, Schenectady County spokesperson, on Wednesday said county health officials were working with districts in the county to gather the vaccination information but also would not specify how the information would be publicly reported.
“Schenectady County is working with school districts and BOCES partners to start gathering this information,” Roberts said.