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Iowa school district wants to test for COVID on campus, schools looking to hand out test kits

Des Moines Register logo Des Moines Register 9/13/2021 Samantha Hernandez, Des Moines Register
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The Sioux City Community School District is set to adopt a rarely used strategy in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic: testing students and staff at its schools.  

The school board is expected to vote Monday whether to proceed with purchasing $40,000 worth of COVID-19 tests, setting the new screening system in motion. 

If approved, the district's nursing staff will administer tests to students or staff showing symptoms of COVID-19. Parent approval will be needed prior to testing any student.

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The tests will be available in all 20 of the district's school buildings. The hope is more and early testing among those with symptoms will help cut down transmission of the virus, which is spreading quickly among young people nationwide. 

Terrance Hart, a junior at Des Moines North High School, gets his first of two Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shots during a clinic at Des Moines North High School in Des Moines on Thursday, May 6, 2021. © Bryon Houlgrave/The Register Terrance Hart, a junior at Des Moines North High School, gets his first of two Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shots during a clinic at Des Moines North High School in Des Moines on Thursday, May 6, 2021.

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"We want to do everything we can to keep students and staff safe so that they can attend school daily," said Sioux City associate Superintendent Kim Buryanek. 

Testing for COVID is one of the few high-profile mitigation strategies Iowa schools can put in place after state officials prohibited universal masking mandates in schools and quarantine orders for students. President Joe Biden called for more testing in schools as part of his redesigned battle COVID-19 plan, especially as students younger than 12 remain ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The push comes as more young people are infected with the coronavirus' delta variant.  

While the state education department is unaware of other school testing on-site, at least 19 school districts are in some stage of offering free testing to students and staff, state officials said.  

Related: Where can you find a COVID test? From rapid tests to free take-home tests, here's where to get one in Iowa

Ames, Hudson and Mason City school districts are among those that have submitted requests to the Iowa Department of Education to distribute testing kits, said Heather Doe, the department's spokesperson.

"Because this is the first time that schools will be distributing diagnostic testing, the Department of Education is working with districts that choose to dispense test kits to ensure they are aware of the policies that must be followed," Doe said. 

The Dubuque Community School District was ahead of its peers in procuring tests. However, its plans to distribute testing kits -- and potentially screen for COVID at its schools -- are on hold pending state approval.

Related: Gov. Kim Reynolds declines to recommend masks for students: 'It doesn't really matter because it's a law'

Before the start of the school year, the district ordered 1,000 at-home COVID-19 test kits from the state's Test Iowa program, said Michael Cyze, Dubuque schools' spokesperson. So far the district has received only 90. 

As the district awaits state approval to release the tests and for more supply, the district is referring families and staff to their health care providers and local testing sites, he said. 

Des Moines Public Schools is looking at making test kits available to students to take home, said Phil Roeder, district spokesperson. 

"We anticipate that federal COVID relief funds would pay for this, but we are still waiting to learn whether federal funds allocated to Iowa for testing are or are not available," Roeder said, referring to Gov. Kim Reynolds' decision to send $95 million for testing in schools back to Washington. 

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Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek said school communities should have a menu of testing options available to them.  

"It is incredibly important that our school systems have available to them test kits that they can use at school or send home," Beranek said. "And that it's very important that the turnaround be quick enough to allow for decisions to be made."

Cleo Krejci contributed to this report.

Samantha Hernandez covers education for the Register. Reach her at (515) 851-0982 or svhernandez@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @svhernandez or Facebook at facebook.com/svhernandezreporter.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Iowa school district wants to test for COVID on campus, schools looking to hand out test kits

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