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Six things to know as Detroit schools’ COVID testing deadline looms

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The Detroit Public Schools Community District returns to in-person learning Monday, when the district launches an expanded student COVID testing program. The district uses saliva tests, rather than the nasal swabs pictured above.

Jon Cherry / Getty Images

The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

On Monday, thousands of Detroit students will do something they haven’t been able to do since the middle of December — head to their school buildings to learn in person.

Monday also marks the deadline for parents in the Detroit Public Schools Community District to consent to COVID testing for their children.

During a parent listening session Wednesday night, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said 91% of parents have turned in the forms. That’s way up from December, when the percentage hovered in the 60s. Data from early January showed some schools have a long way to go to get their numbers up.

District officials want 100% of students signed up for the weekly testing. The district will transfer students who don’t have consent forms on file to the virtual school. 

Here are six things that are important to know as that deadline looms:

Detroit is one of the few districts in Michigan requiring student testing

The district’s student testing policy appears to be the most aggressive effort in Michigan schools to stem the spread of COVID. In addition to the student mandate, employees must be vaccinated against the virus by Feb. 18. That’s a step up from the policy that’s been in place thus far in the district, which has required staff to test weekly, unless they were fully vaccinated.

Across the nation, some schools are testing students regularly, but not requiring it. In Chicago, the district and teachers union — as part of an agreement that allowed classes to resume after the winter break — agreed to push for 100% student testing in each school. In Los Angeles, the school district requires weekly student and employee testing. 

In Detroit, the student testing mandate is influenced largely by the high infection rates and low vaccination rates in the city.

“This is the second to last COVID safety strategy that we can implement in order to keep students in schools consistently, Monday through Friday,” Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in a recent interview. The last strategy, he said, would be a student vaccine requirement, which he is considering for the next school year.

It’s legal to require COVID testing, district leader has said

Vitti said recently that the district researched the legality of requiring COVID testing before announcing the policy change Dec. 31.

“Our legal review on this one is that we can require the test as long as we do not prevent a student from accessing an education through the district. That is still happening through the virtual school.”

A mandatory transfer to the virtual school won’t be automatic

At Wednesday’s listening session, Vitti reiterated something he’s said before — that students who don’t have a consent form on file won’t be automatically sent to the virtual school. That transfer is likely to happen by the end of February. Before then, district employees will do everything they can to get consent.

“Until we have tried with phone calls, even a home visit, we’re not going to just move a child out of in-person learning into the virtual school, simply because we don’t have a consent on file yet,” Vitti said. “But by the end of February, middle of February, if we can’t reach you and your child is not coming to school, then we’re going to move you to the virtual school.” 

If parents give their consent verbally, over the phone, “then we’ll initial the consent form and we’re fine and we move forward,” Vitti said. 

The virtual school opened in September and enrolls about 2,000 students. It has been an option for parents reluctant to send their children to school for face-to-face learning.

A spit is all it takes to test

The Detroit school board last May approved a contract with LynxDX to provide weekly saliva PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing. The total cost is about $71 million, a huge investment, thanks to federal COVID relief funding.

The use of saliva tests means students only need to spend a few seconds weekly to get tested and don’t have to stick a nasal swab up their nose.

Protecting student saliva collections is important

During a recent school board meeting and in an earlier interview with Chalkbeat, Vitti stressed that the saliva students provide for the COVID testing should not be used for anything else.

“We have an agreement with LynxDX that it can’t be used for any other tests, or, you know, DNA. Nothing like that. That’s specifically in the contract,” Vitti said.

Exemptions are available, but likely will be limited

Parents can ask for an exemption for medical or religious reasons. There are some circumstances in which a student might need a medical exemption from testing. One of them, Vitti said, is in the case of a student who can’t produce enough saliva. There are also some students who cognitively “can’t understand the concept and the process of saliva testing,” Vitti said.

“So they are exempt as well,” Vitti said.

Overall, though, he said it will be difficult for students to qualify for medical or religious exemptions.

He said Wednesday that a small number of parents — about 40 to 50 — have indicated they object to the saliva test.

“We’re hoping to reduce the number … to a couple dozen, if possible. We just want to make sure that everyone understands clearly that we have to keep everyone safe. And the best way to be safe right now is testing.”

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