My Real COVID-19 Concern about Schools: What We Can Learn from D.C.’s Minimal School Testing

D.C.–not Wor-Shing-Tun, but D.C.–tests roughly ten percent of its student per week. While that is nowhere near enough testing to allay parents’ concerns that their child’s classroom is COVID-free or actually control spread, D.C.’s inadequate testing still gives us some useful information.

D.C. is averaging about 60-75 students who test positive per week (give or take). So that means about 1.2-1.5% of the student body (750 students) is infected (again, give or take). While D.C. is no longer reliably reporting positive cases by age, D.C.’s vaccination data reveal that several hundred children under the age of twelve test positive per week, so we are missing a significant fraction of those under the age of eighteen who have tested positive (the vaccination data divide the unvaccinated into under 12 and 12 and older, but presumably some of the 12-17 year-olds are included in the daily tests, though probably not that many).

Given that kids seem to be far more likely to be asymptomatic (I’ve seen estimates ranging from 30-50% of kids are asymptomatic–not pre-symptomatic, but asymptomatic), there is likely spread within classrooms that is then brought home to households.

While some of the positives (and some is very vague here) are import into schools, we simply don’t know if there is spread, but, unless we think the D.C. experience is unique, then schools are likely spreading COVID-19. In D.C. this is particularly disconcerting because the wards with the most DCPS students also are the wards with the lowest vaccination rates. Not surprisingly, these wards also have the highest new positive rates.

While it’s obvious Mayor Bowser has decided to use the incredibly lax CDC guidelines* as an excuse to keep schools open come hell or high water (and the Council is too gormless to stand up to her**), if D.C. actually did want to crush the curve, it needs to massive increase classroom testing. Yes, we obviously want to protect students and teachers, but we also need to stop the spread of the virus in general–and schools are part of ‘in general’: we are eighteen months into this godawful mess, and our elected officials still do not seem to understand the fundamental concept of chains of transmission.

D.C. should be testing at least fifty percent of its students (maybe spend some of that vaunted surplus?). If one student tests positive, then test the entire classroom. If they test positive, they go home for an extended period of time. And if parents are upset about this policy, then push for policies outside of schools to lower the spread ‘out there’–vaccination requirements, among other things.

Otherwise, we’re in for a slow burn in fall and winter.

*The CDC guidelines are lax, in part, because poor, rural counties simply don’t have the ability to do lots of testing. D.C. does however.

**This is why most local and state officials who were in office during the pandemic shouldn’t be reelected.

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