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Charleston schools plan to offer rapid COVID-19 testing for students, teachers next month

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It has been nearly three weeks since Charleston County students first returned to the classroom after schools abruptly closed in mid-March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Charleston County school officials expect they'll be able to offer rapid coronavirus testing in the coming weeks for students, faculty and staff. 

On Monday, School District Chief Operating Officer Jeff Borowy told board members that the district was "on the cusp" of being able to conduct rapid COVID-19 testing within schools. 

The district expects it will receive the necessary equipment within a week, thanks to a partnership with the Medical University of South Carolina. 

The ID NOW device, manufactured by medical technology company Abbott Laboratories, will be provided to the district for free by MUSC, Borowy said. 

"If we have a symptomatic child or faculty, we’ll be able to get a sample and get a result back in 15 minutes," Borowy said. 

The district is also hoping to partner with MUSC to receive the individual coronavirus test kits, Borowy said, but those details are still being finalized. 

The district will start with one device but eventually receive four more from MUSC so they can be spread out geographically. 

Unlike polymerase chain reaction COVID-19 tests, which require a deep nasal swab, the district's new equipment requires a "much-less-invasive test," Borowy said. 

The purpose of the rapid testing will be twofold.

It will help quickly identify positive cases if a student, faculty or staff member begins showing symptoms while at school. If a student begins showing symptoms, testing would only be conducted once their parent comes to pick them up and provides permission. 

If there's an increase in COVID-19 cases at a particular school, the district also plans to conduct so-called "selective testing" to gauge the level of virus spread on a small-scale basis and hopefully prevent any outbreaks from occurring, he said.

"It would be a huge benefit to us," Borowy said. "It would allow us to do contact tracing immediately."  

As of Monday afternoon, there have been 32 COVID-19 cases associated with Charleston County schools since they reopened Sept. 8, according to the district's testing dashboard.  Another 15 cases have been reported among students who are learning exclusively online. 

Some 12,000 county students returned to the classroom in person for the first day of school earlier this month. Last week, the district began the process of bringing thousands more students back in person, citing improved disease activity in the area. 

By Wednesday, the district projects that more than 23,450 students, or around 55 percent districtwide, will be back. 

That still leaves about 1,530 students still on the waitlist for in-person instruction, said Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait. 

The board voted unanimously on Monday to grant all CCSD full-time staff a one-time bonus of $500 to thank them for their work to reopen schools during the ongoing pandemic. 

The board also approved a motion to amend the school calendar and designate Oct. 16 as an online learning catch-up day for students. Instead of the previously scheduled half-day, students will not report to school and instead complete assignments from home. 

This will give teachers and administrators a much-needed workday, Postlewait said, to finalize schedules and reduce the number of teachers who are required to teach both in person and online at the same time. 

The next Charleston County School Board meeting is Oct. 12. 

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif.

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