New York City is trying to increase the number of students who accept random coronavirus tests. Michael Appleton / NYC Mayoral Photography Office
The effectiveness of New York City’s school-based COVID testing program was examined Wednesday, when Department of Education officials first stated the number of students who agreed to participate: just over a third of those eligible.
A total of 192,705 students have submitted consent to the sample program, First Vice Chancellor Donald Conyers said at a city council meeting. About 550,000 students are eligible for testing, according to department officials.
“These are not very reassuring numbers,” said Brooklyn City Councilman and Education Committee Chairman Mark Treyger in response to the numbers during the hearing.
The city’s current protocol requires that 10% of non-vaccinated students be tested weekly in grades 1-12, as preschool and kindergarten students are excluded from the program. There is no penalty for not submitting the forms and students who do not return them should not be tested.
The lack of consent for most students could weaken the city’s test strategy, some public health experts said, though others were less concerned. Last school year, when test consent was mandatory for students attending school in person, officials also struggled to collect consent forms. (About 40% of children returned to buildings by the end of last year.)
Conyers said the education department is rapidly trying to increase the number of students who agree to test. Families submitted 20,000 statements of consent in the past week, officials said.
“We encourage parents and students to go up every day,” Conyers said. “Where we find resistance, we will keep pushing.”
The city’s current test program is not large or frequent enough to prevent individual infections, experts said. It is generally intended to detect broader coronavirus outbreaks in schools and measure whether the city’s virus prevention efforts – such as masking, social distancing, a vaccination mandate for staff and ventilation – are working properly.
After the first school week, when the city loosened quarantine rules, officials also increased the frequency to weekly rather than every other week.
However, low levels of consent can skew the test results. For example, if those who do not submit the forms correlate with other risk factors for contracting coronavirus, e.g. Not wearing a mask or living in a neighborhood with higher infection rates, the city may not be testing a truly random sample of unvaccinated students.
“It’s very easy to imagine that the people who sign up to participate in a routine testing program are likely to be different in their COVID attitudes and behaviors than those who do not sign up,” said Ben Linas, an epidemiologist. at Boston University.
Linas suggested that with such a small and potentially skewed sample, it could be more efficient to scrap the test program completely and redirect resources to other strategies, such as finding extra space for schools that cram students into full-capacity classrooms.
Other public health experts said that even with low levels of consent, the test program could still provide valuable information.
“As long as children have given their consent [testing] is packed with children who have not done so, and as long as they adhere to measures such as masks and physical distancing in the same way, those children whose families have given their consent to test will increase safety at school, ”said Anna Bershteyn, a Assistant Professor of Public Health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
But if there are schools or classrooms where few students have returned consent forms and are not tested, “it can create blind spots where outbreaks can go undetected, or layers of protection can collapse without anyone knowing,” Bershteyn added.
It is unclear how many schools have a significant number of students who have not given consent to testing, but there are some cases where zero students were tested during some random testing sessions on site, according to public data.
At PS 194 in Brooklyn, 38 employees and zero students were tested during the school’s first wave of random coronavirus tests on Sept. 13, the first day of school. In two subsequent sample visits, more than 30 students were tested, city data show. Seven employees at the school have tested positive so far this school year.
An employee who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation said the school was reluctant to test the students because the only consent they had registered was from the previous school year. Although last year’s consent was still valid through September 30, there was some unrest over ironing students on their very first day back in the building.
City officials did not answer questions about how many schools could not test at least 10% of their unvaccinated students due to consent questions.
Nathaniel Styer, a spokesman for the education department, defended the city’s test protocols, even though most eligible students have not given their consent.
“Our test level works, and with 100% of staff vaccinated, our schools are among some of the safest places to be in town,” Styer said. “The city encourages all parents of an unvaccinated student to submit consent forms and help continue to keep our schools safe and open.”
Styer said parents can submit paperwork consent forms or fill out a digital version via their student’s NYCSA account.
Chalkbeat is a non-profit news site that covers educational changes in the public schools.