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District steps up its free in-school Covid testing program

Lenoir County Public Schools is bolstering its free in-school Covid-19 testing program by expanding its corps of school nurses, adding the highly accurate PCR test and teaming up with a private firm to interpret test results.

The changes are expected to get students back to school sooner, make testing more convenient, and provide some relief for our school nurses who, just a few weeks ago, were “totally inundated with Covid all day long,” Assistant Superintendent Nicholas Harvey II reported.

LCPS used federal ESSER funds to hire three nurses part-time, based them at the district’s three traditional high schools and made Covid testing, case investigation and contact tracing their primary responsibilities.

“These additional three nurses will allow our other school nurses to concentrate on writing care plans and coordinating the care of our students with chronic or acute medical conditions, educating and training staff, first aid, and all the other duties they need to concentrate on,” Harvey said.

Two women in face masks look over a Covid testing kit in a plastic bag.Since LCPS began its in-school testing program nearly a year ago, as one of 17 public school districts in a state pilot program, its seven full-time school nurses have shouldered that duty while juggling their other responsibilities. “The beginning of the (school) year, we were testing, testing, testing,” April Hardy, one of the nurses, said.

The district built its testing program around the rapid antigen test, a diagnostic test useful in school because of its quick turn-around time. While the rapid antigen test will still be available in schools and used in specific situations, according to Hardy, the PCR test is considered more accurate and is essential to green-lighting a student’s or staff member’s return to school when showing Covid-like symptoms.

“This is a much different test,” Harvey said. “The rapid test is a quality test, but the PCR is the Cadillac of tests. The PCR test is the test recommended by the state and the CDC for individuals who receive a negative antigen test and are experiencing Covid-like symptoms.”

LCPS has partnered with Raleigh-based Mako Medical to train the district’s nurses on testing procedures, provide supplies for the tests and to interpret test results. As a state-approved vendor, Mako is paid directly from federal funds based on the number of tests it analyzes.

Mako is expected to provide results in approximately 24 hours of testing and will notify staff and parents of the test results.

Testing will be limited to students and staff who are symptomatic or are identified as a close contact of someone with a confirmed case of Covid-19. No one will be tested without consent. The test requires taking a sample with a short nasal swab.

During the waiting period between test and test results, people with symptoms are not allowed to come to school.

“If you’re presenting with Covid-like symptoms, we’re still following state and CDC guidelines and requiring those people to stay at home. We’re asking parents to keep their children at home until they get a negative test result or are seen by their doctor and receive an alternate diagnosis,” Harvey said. “We’re entering flu season and cold season – everything isn’t Covid and we realize that – but we’re still asking parents if their student is presenting symptoms to please keep them home.”

Having the PCR test available at school should shorten the time symptomatic individuals who ultimately test negative are kept out of school.

“What we’ve been doing is sending symptomatic students to a doctor’s office or a testing facility to get a confirmation PCR test before allowing them to return to school. Now we will be able to swab and collect the PCR test ourselves and put the sample in the drop box. Mako will pick it up and we’ll know the results in about 24 hours,” Hardy said.

Securing an appointment for testing at an outside facility, getting tested, and getting the results could take anywhere from 48 to 72 hours, according to Hardy. “Hopefully, having this test in school will be a way to get students back to school sooner.”

A negative PCR test for a symptomatic student will allow the student to return to school as long as symptoms have improved, the student has been fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever reducing medications and has had no nausea/vomiting/diarrhea for 24 hours.

“We’re lucky to have this program because it will be a benefit to our staff and students – and our parents, to get their children back to school as quickly as possible,” Harvey said.

Photo caption:

LCPS school nurse April Hardy, right, and Christy Elmore, the new Covid support nurse at South Lenoir High School, look over a PCR test kit now in use throughout the school district. LCPS has stepped up its Covid testing program by hiring more nurses, adding the highly accurate PCR test and bringing on a private firm to analyze test results.