OSWEGO — Oswego City School District officials are planning to implement a COVID-19 testing service for students and staff, but questions about pricing and staffing still linger.
Part of the state’s guidance on students returning to school for an in-person, full-time schedule included school districts providing more COVID-19 testing options for staff and students. This new initiative fell squarely on school districts across New York, who were tasked by Gov. Kathy Hochul to coordinate the newly implemented testing programs with their local county health departments.
“My top priority is to get children back to school and protect the environment so they can learn, and everyone is safe,” Hochul said in a press release issued in September.
At Tuesday’s Oswego City School District (OCSD) Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Mathis Calvin III presented the board and the public with two different plans to implement COVID-19 testing at the district level.
The district’s preferred option would be to enter an agreement with Affinity Empowering, a national health services company that services other school districts, universities, homeless shelters, summer camps, and correctional facilities. The COVID-19 program, which would come to the district free of charge, is part of a larger federal initiative dubbed “Operation Expanded Testing,” funded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The main downside to this program, Calvin said, is that the district would have to mail the testing samples to the company. The district would then hear back from Affinity within the next day or two.
The other option would be for the district to enter an agreement with Syracuse-based biotechnologies company Quadrant BioSciences, who could provide testing for the district at a price rate of $15 to $20 per test, Calvin said.
To shore up testing costs, Calvin added, the district would use federal funds distributed by the county to pay for a portion of the total sum. In July, the Oswego County Legislature approved a resolution to receive $4 million in federal funds from Albany-based company Health Research Incorporated for improved testing for local school districts. As part of this pool of funds, close to $800,000 was allocated to OCSD.
Calvin said he did not believe the approximately $800,000 in federal money would cover the costs of testing at OCSD.
The district, Calvin said, is tasked with performing surveillance testing and referring staff and students to other agencies for diagnostic testing. Surveillance testing looks for individual infections in a group even if there is no reason to suspect those individuals are infected, while diagnostic testing serves to identify current infection at the individual level and is performed when a person has signs or symptoms of infection.
Calvin added the district would only be providing screening tests for all unvaccinated employees and students whose parents opt in on a weekly basis, per state regulations.
The way testing is administered varies depending on the company the district partners with, the superintendent said. If the district chose the Quadrant BioScience option, the company would provide saliva testing, while the Affinity Empowering option would require nasal swabbing.
The weekly testing sites would operate Monday mornings from 6-8:30 a.m. at the district’s transportation center behind Oswego Middle School. Parents and legal guardians will be required to opt into testing for their students, Calvin said.
“Testing numbers are going to depend on what happens with vaccination rates on younger students,” Calvin said, adding that as of Sept. 1, the percentage of eligible students who had been vaccinated stood at approximately 14 percent.
Staffing is a complication for the district, as well as the county’s health department.
The district’s testing site would require hiring a licensed practical nurse, as well as four to five nursing aides, Calvin said.
At previous board of education meetings, the district had hoped to receive aid from the Oswego County Health Department, as well as other private partners like Oswego Health.
“What we have learned as of last week is that our county health department is not going to be able to assist us with the implementation of testing,” Calvin said. “All nine districts in the county learned that the county is overwhelmed. They do not have the staffing. They don’t have he people to be able to do the testing. They are having a hard time contacting people when they are testing positive.”
Calvin also noted the number of active COVID-19 cases in Oswego County is more than double what the district was seeing at this time last year. The latest update from the county, issued on Oct. 4, reveals there are 555 active COVID-19 cases.
In a statement issued earlier this week, Oswego County Health Department Director of Public Health Jiancheng Huang also addressed the county’s COVID-19 testing capacities.
“As (with) many counties across the state, especially rural counties, Oswego County has a limited testing capacity,” Huang said. “Over the past week, we have been exploring different ways to make testing available more quickly to help meet the needs of our community. We have reached out to local partners and testing manufacturers. This process is ongoing, and, as soon as we have a breakthrough, we will make an announcement.”
The surge in cases is not confined to just Oswego County. Currently, all counties in New York — with the exception of Westchester County — are considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as having “high” community transmission levels. Under CDC criteria, “high” transmission areas are those with 100 or more cases per 100,000 people or a positivity rate of 10% or higher every seven days.
“Ensuring our children remain safe and their schools remain open are important concerns,” said Oswego County Supervising Public Health Nurse Jodi Martin. “Therefore, with the increase in COVID-19 cases, we have prioritized investigating those that are school-related in our effort to keep the virus out of schools.”
Martin noted in a statement that the county has a backlog of COVID-19 case investigations due to a limited number of state-employed case investigators and a delay in laboratory reporting.
“We have requested additional help from the state Department of Health over the last week, which has helped us reduce the number of uninvestigated cases,” Martin said.
Calvin said the district also reached out to Oswego Health to potentially help with staffing.
“We reached out to Oswego Health to see if they could assist us. Because of the recent vaccination edict that went on for the staffing and nurses, they are now short-staffed. They are saying: ‘We are already short. There is no way we can help anyone else right now. We are trying to keep our systems afloat.’”
If residents have any questions regarding testing and vaccinations at OCSD, Calvin encouraged reaching out to the district’s COVID-19 hotline at 315-341-2050.