Several hundred Michigan schools have signed up for a new voluntary COVID-19 program that will test educators weekly for the virus, part of the state’s efforts to get more students learning in school buildings.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services launched the new program Tuesday with 300 schools and 9,000 educators. Additional schools can still enroll in the program, said Bob Wheaton, spokesman for the department. It is open to public and private schools and the testing supplies will be provided at no cost.
“Voluntary testing of educators is part of the larger state strategy of keeping students, staff, and communities safe while giving children the in-person instruction that they need to learn, develop, and grow,” Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state Health and Human Services Department, said in a statement.
This new voluntary testing is happening as state officials push schools to reopen their school buildings for learning. Parents, educators, lawmakers and others have raised alarms about the academic and emotional struggles students and teachers have faced as many have spent nearly a year learning remotely. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer earlier this year called on schools to provide an in-person learning option by March 1. A Michigan House GOP plan for spending federal coronavirus funding would target some of that money toward districts that reopen by Feb. 15.
Meanwhile, State Superintendent Michael Rice called on lawmakers Tuesday to increase the number of days of required instruction in a school year. Current rules require 180 days. Rice said more is needed to help students who have fallen behind academically because of the pandemic.
The voluntary testing effort is called MI Safe Schools Testing and is modeled after the state’s pilot program for fall sports that tested student athletes and coaches who were participating in playoffs. More than 8,300 people were tested as part of that program, the state said.
“The rigorous testing program resulted in the detection of 69 asymptomatic COVID-19 cases that otherwise could have been missed,” according to a department news release.
The results of that pilot, where the negativity rate was over 99%, have been used by student athletes, coaches, and advocates to push the state to reverse its restrictions on winter contact sports.
Hertel and Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, signed a state order Tuesday that allows for COVID-19 testing in non-health care settings. Khaldun said the new order ensures “we are eliminating as many barriers to testing as possible.”