The state Department of Education is ramping up federally funded on-campus COVID-19 screening as an added measure in its battle against the coronavirus pandemic.
At least 165 schools across the state have registered for training to join Operation Expanded Testing, and 67 of those schools are already actively testing with more schools signing up every day, officials said Wednesday.
In addition, another federally funded testing program, called ELC (Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity), has been launched at a dozen neighbor island schools and is expected to expand to Oahu in the coming weeks.
Run as a partnership with the DOE and the state Department of Health, these programs come at a time when the highly transmissible delta variant has made children more vulnerable to the virus and as more than 3,000 cases have been linked to public school campuses since the start of the school year.
The state has been criticized for not starting these programs earlier, but officials said it takes time to establish testing using volunteer labor.
DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said the department asked the National Guard for help with staffing but the request was denied because the the guard was already supporting other testing, vaccination and education efforts tied to the state’s virus fight, along with its other missions.
The DOE, she said, is now in the final stages of setting up complex area support teams to help accelerate the rollout of Operation Expanded Testing. The department expects to start recruiting for positions soon.
What’s more, the department is working with state health officials to prepare to move quickly when vaccines are authorized for school-aged youngsters under 12.
“That will be huge for our younger students to have access to a vaccination,” Kalani said.
At Waikiki Elementary School Wednesday, Operation Expanded Testing was in full operation as a line of students waited patiently for their turn to take the COVID-19 tests. The volunteer test takers were Vice Principal Whitney Mahoney and Student Services Coordinator Trisha Fish.
“We’re all pitching in,” Principal Ryan Kusuda said of his staff. “We’re all invested in terms of having another measure to keep our community safe.”
Waikiki was one of the first schools to start the testing in a program that does not require medical professionals and uses simple PCR tests. Samples are collected on nasal swabs that are sent to a mainland lab, with results coming back in about three days.
The program aims to screen asymptomatic individuals who do not have known or suspected exposure to COVID-19.
At Waikiki, where masking and distancing protocols are strictly enforced, nearly 200 students and staff members test every Wednesday morning. According to Kasuda, about one-third of the 24 cases linked with the school were detected by the PCR tests.
“It’s confirmation,” the principal said. “The testing is validation that we’re able to prevent constant transmission on campus.”
The program is voluntary across the board. For the students, parents decide whether or not their children participate.
Ann Chang, the parent of two Waikiki students, 8 and 10, said she’s very happy about the testing.
“I would hate for my children to have COVID and not know it and infect others at school,” said Chang, a physician.
Fifth-grade teacher Matt Lawrence, who took the PCR test Wednesday morning, said his daughter, a Waikiki second-grader, also takes the tests.
“Right now I’m comfortable with her being here at school. And I’m comfortable with myself being here.” Lawrence said. “The testing helps with the peace of mind of a lot of our families.”
Some schools are acting as hubs where students, teachers and staff from nearby schools can be tested.
At Kaimuki High School, testing is now offered Mondays and Wednesdays for faculty, staff and students, and Tuesdays for the larger Department of Education community.
How important is it?
“It’s important enough that people are using it,” Principal Jamie Dela Cruz said. “There’s a lot of fear and anxiety out there. It’s just another layer of service to help safeguard our community.”
State health officials on Wednesday reported 13 new coronavirus-related deaths and 230 new confirmed and probable infections statewide, bringing the state’s totals since the start of the pandemic to 770 fatalities and 78,874 cases.
The latest deaths included nine on Oahu, and two each on Maui and the Big Island. All but one had underlying conditions, and all but one was hospitalized at the time of death. They ranged in age from a man in his 30s on Oahu to three women and two men in their 80s.
The state’s seven-day average positivity rate is about 4%, according to the Hawaii COVID-19 Data dashboard.