Students, educators, and administrators in Seattle Public Schools want weekly coronavirus testing to be performed in schools but disagree over whether the added responsibility of supervising students while they swab for the virus should fall on educators.
The dispute over who should test kids is happening at a time when school COVID-19 cases are rising sharply, causing severe staffing shortages that have resulted in abrupt closures in some buildings, and a temporary return to remote learning in others.
Teachers say they can’t be expected to teach and also supervise virus testing. “Educators feel like they are drowning in the work,” Jennifer Matter, Seattle Education Association president, said in an emailed statement. “We cannot take on yet another duty that would take away from our time with students.”
The disruptions caused by the recent closures have sparked a student-led movement demanding stronger safety protocols, which include weekly testing for students and staff.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said regular testing at schools, along with COVID-19 vaccines, helps limit the spread of infection and allows schools to stay open for in-person learning. Children and teenagers often don’t have symptoms but can still spread the disease, so regular testing helps identify those who have the coronavirus before spreading it to others.
“Universal testing is an excellent idea, and we would love to do it, but universal testing requires many things — including a test observer for every test and including parental consent,” said Rob Gannon, deputy superintendent at Seattle Schools. “And those are just the first line of obstacles.”
Testing observers make sure students are swabbing correctly, and for the right amount of time, said Sarah Pritchett, assistant deputy superintendent of strategy, deployment and response.
The request to use teachers as testing observers triggered bargaining with the Seattle Education Association, or SEA, the union that represents the district’s teachers.
Gannon said the district doesn’t have enough nonteaching staff to supervise students for virus testing, “and as we look (to) the public, as great as our volunteer resources are, it’s not reliable and consistent.”
It’s unclear how many additional people the district would need to make weekly testing feasible.
Educators at many schools are already having to give up bathroom breaks, planning and lunch periods because of staff and substitute shortages, said Matter, the union president. SEA is supportive of weekly testing, but the district needs to bring in additional staff to make it happen, she added.
Students at Franklin High School — where staff shortages have hit hard — have specifically asked for weekly testing at schools for students and staff. The school was shut down for two days last week and then switched to remote learning halfway through the week. There have been 118 cases reported at Franklin, the most at any of Seattle’s 106 schools, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.
School closures at Franklin and across the district have happened because staff are sick, or stressed to the point that they cannot safely do their jobs, said Stefanie Skiljan, a union leader at Franklin High, also part of SEA.
“Adding another job for teachers to do right now is incomprehensible,” Skiljan said. “Offering to carry out necessary safety precautions during a pandemic only if an already overloaded staff will take on even more work is outrageous, and shows how much SPS is actually willing to invest in public safety.”
Seattle Schools did meet an agreement with SEA for a smaller-scale pilot program for what’s called “screen testing” at schools. In that form of testing, a pool of samples are taken, and if one of those testing groups comes back positive, individuals in the group are tested. The pilot will start at two to three schools and if successful, could continue to grow.
But it takes at least two months for screen testing to begin at a school, Pritchett said, because so much planning is involved. To set up screen testing, the district would meet with different groups of employees to explain how the testing will work, how their jobs would be affected by the testing program and answer questions, she said. Then the staff at that school would need to vote on whether to move forward with screen testing.
“We have to get agreement from every single member of staff,” Pritchett said. “We are in the process right now of building our presentation to go out and present to different bodies of SEA, like the nursing staff. It’s critical that we get them (nurses) on board if schools want to do that (screen testing).”