School testing stock pic

After covid-forced virtual learning caused a long list of debilitating challenges for students and teachers last year, local school officials are doing what they can to ensure classrooms stay open for the duration of 2021-22.

 And while some districts across the country flirt with the idea of vaccine mandates, Worcester County Public Schools officials are not going there, and ensure that efforts to test students in outbreak situations are simply imposed to halt potential spread of the highly contagious virus.

Lauren Williams, the coordinator of school health services for the Worcester County Board of Education, said the school system does two types of testing when outbreaks are identified.

“When we identify a cohort outbreak, we require testing or exclusion because they’re in this higher risk category and we need to identify any additional cases and get that outbreak closed as quickly and safely as possible … this has been a successful strategy in our cohort outbreaks,” she explained.

The other type, surveillance testing, helps officials identify how far an outbreak has spread.

“We use surveillance testing when we have schoolwide outbreaks and with those we provide testing events at approximately two weeks,” she said. “Those are optional and we just encourage people to participate in those.”

While state grant funds were available to help districts hire personnel to perform the surveillance tests, the school system opted to work with a private company, MAKO Medical. Williams said the district is still enrolled in the statewide program —it just does not receive state money to operate.

“If you chose to participate in surveillance testing, which was optional, there was an option to request funding to hire your own folks or to partner with a company that would hire people to do the testing,” she explained.

Williams added that the district has an ample supply of tests, both rapid and standard, which are provided at no cost to the school system.

She also assured that local officials will not use the test results to impose a future covid vaccine mandate. She said all vaccine mandates in schools are directives of the health department and come down from the state level.

“Any vaccines we require now are required through the Maryland Department of Health,” Williams said.

Andrew Owen, the director for media relations for the state health department, said in an email early this week that there are no plans to require covid vaccines in schools.

“While the state encourages all eligible Marylanders to get vaccinated for covid-19 at the earliest opportunity — including the 5- 11-year-olds who [became eligivle this week]— we do not currently have plans to mandate covid-19 vaccines in schools,” he said.

Williams also said vaccines are encouraged for those who are eligible but that it is just one of the multiple mitigation methods.

“Mitigation strategies have to be in place in higher risk environments and so we have a menu of different options for mitigation strategies and we are fortunate that the department of health has provided tests to us to be able to shut these outbreaks down as quickly as possible and keep our students and staff safe,” she said. “Vaccination is another mitigation strategy, but there are options for folks who choose not to be vaccinated.” 

According to the Code of Maryland Regulations, public school students are currently required to get shots for several viruses in the absence of approved religious exceptions and proven immunities.

They include tetanus, diphtheria, polio, hepatitis B, meningitis pertussis, measles, mumps and rubella, and some others.

According to the state code, the Maryland Health Department, in conjunction with the state board of education and the Statewide Advisory Commission on Immunizations, are the bodies that coordinate to “adopt rules and regulations regarding immunizations required of children entering schools.” 

This story appears in the print edition of the OC Today on Nov. 5.

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