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California offers COVID-19 rapid tests to reopening schools

A teacher checks in for a COVID-19 test.
A teacher applies hand sanitizer to her hands while checking in to receive a COVID-19 test at Arthur E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

California is offering rapid COVID-19 tests to students and educators in an effort to support school reopening efforts, state education officials announced this week.

State officials have about 5 million BinaxNOW antigen tests that schools can purchase that provide results within 15 minutes and cost $5 per test, said Daniel Thigpen, deputy superintendent of communications for the California Department of Education.

The news arrives on the heels of a deal reached between Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislative leaders to offer financial incentives to school districts that reopen by April 1.

Use of the rapid tests isn’t mandatory; rather, they’re an optional resource for schools, Thigpen said.

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Implementing rapid tests “can be useful for having awareness, as schools get open, and to prevent the transmission of COVID in our schools,” Tony Thurmond, state superintendent of public instruction, said during a webinar about the program earlier this week.

California’s Department of Education operates three schools that cater to blind and deaf students. All of them currently employ COVID-19 rapid testing, Thurmond said. School officials can use CARES Act funds, money allocated to them in the state budget, or their own discretionary resources to pay for the tests, officials said.

The L.A. County Office of Education, which provides support to the county’s 80 school districts, is looking into the rapid test offer.

“We’re still gathering information about the testing program, and how it will roll out in L.A. County,” said Margo Minecki, spokesperson for the office. “We’re looking into it to see if we might have a role.”

The county office previously provided districts an opportunity to partner with Valencia Branch Labs for in-school testing, and it was up to each district to move forward with the partnership, Minecki said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, which announced its reopening plan this week, independently assembled a COVID-19 testing program last summer.

The wider availability of tests for schools comes as roughly 7,000 of California’s more than 10,000 campuses are either open or have a framework in place to reopen within the next month, Newsom said at his recent State of the State address.

In addition, about 200,000 teachers and school staff have been vaccinated to date, representing more than a third of the approximately 550,000 total K-12 education sector employees, Thigpen said.

On March 1, the state began reserving 10% of its vaccine allotment for the education sector.

“Even though the vaccine is being rolled out … and more and more educators are being prioritized for it, until we have fully vaccinated communities, this is another tool that we believe can be helpful to ensuring that we’re mitigating any spread,” Thigpen said of the testing option.


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