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Elizabethtown high school and middle school students walk into school after their bus ride during the first day of school on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.

THE ISSUE: "Even after COVID-19 cases rose among children and district leaders worked to contain outbreaks among students, Pennsylvania schools have been slow to opt into a multimillion-dollar Wolf administration program providing free weekly testing," Spotlight PA's Jamie Martines wrote in an article published on its website Thursday. "Just 396 schools signed up between mid-August and Sept. 30, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. That’s out of more than 5,000 charter, private, and public schools statewide." Spotlight PA is a nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer; its partners include LNP Media Group. 

We understand that it’s been a difficult start to put it mildly to the school year in Pennsylvania. School boards and administrators have been dealing with loud, partisan opposition to measures meant to help contain the spread of COVID-19. There are long, often contentious, public meetings. We can only imagine what it’s like to spend a day in the shoes of administrators, school board members, teachers, school staff or students. And all this while the surge of the delta variant brought another troubling chapter in a 19-month pandemic that has everyone exhausted.

But that’s precisely why we find it hard to understand why the overwhelming majority of Pennsylvania schools, public or private, have failed to avail themselves of the free weekly COVID-19 testing program being offered by the state. Again, it comes at no cost to schools.

All schools in Lancaster County should be taking advantage of this resource. The pandemic is continuing. And we are still seeing the effects it can have here. Landis Run Intermediate School in the Manheim Township School District has shifted to virtual instruction through Wednesday, due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, LNP | LancasterOnline's Alex Geli reported. That affects the building's nearly 1,000 students.

We should also find this troubling: “State Health Department data from the last few weeks shows thousands of school children across Pennsylvania are contracting COVID-19,” WITF reported Thursday. “More than 7,300 kids between 5 and 18 years old tested positive for COVID in a single week last month, up from about 750 at the same time last year.”

Even when COVID-19 numbers take a dip, as they have now in some places after weeks of rocketing upward, we cannot let down our guard. Dr. Tom Frieden, an infectious disease physician and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tweeted this Thursday morning: "Average daily diagnosed cases in the US will soon fall below 100,000. That's progress. But ... really? 100,000 diagnosed cases means many times that number of infections. This wave is receding, but unless we vaccinate the unvaccinated, future deadly waves are likely."

He is right, and we continue to urge all those who are eligible to get vaccinated to do so.

But Americans under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated. We are greatly encouraged that U.S. pharmaceutical firm Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, have officially asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to authorize their vaccine for emergency use for children ages 5 to 11. But that's just a step in the process. FDA officials say that the authorization could occur between Halloween and Thanksgiving, The Washington Post reported Thursday.

While we await that authorization, schools must use the resources at their disposal to help protect students and staff, and to inform their decision-making processes while the virus continues to spread.

To that end, the state Department of Health hired Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks in July to administer a statewide school testing program, Spotlight PA reported. It was hoped that such a program would help to head off outbreaks — and thus keep children in school. 

Spotlight PA described how the testing works: "Students and teachers who choose to participate are typically tested weekly. Each person swabs their own nostril, and the samples from each classroom are mixed together in a process called 'pooled testing.' Results are returned in one to two days, and show whether the virus is present among that group of people. If the result is negative, it’s unlikely that anyone in that group is sick. If the pooled test is positive, it’s possible that someone in that group has COVID-19."

With those results in hand, school leaders can decide whether to recommend additional testing or quarantine. This seems to us like essential information in helping to keep the spread of the virus contained.

So why are only 60 of Pennsylvania's 500 public school districts taking part in the program?

"Wolf administration and school officials offered different reasons for the lack of participation, including fear of finding too many cases and simply being too overwhelmed by a chaotic start to the academic year," the Spotlight PA article noted.

"We’ve tried, ad nauseam, to make sure schools are aware of it," acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said.

If school officials are "overwhelmed," they should consider that school closures and the problems they bring would only add to their worries. Testing programs aren't guaranteed to stop closures from happening, but they can help. 

“In order to be able to operate in person, which (schools) weren’t doing to the same extent last year, you need this extra safety precaution to just keep a check on things and make sure it doesn’t go undetected,” Abby Rudolph, an epidemiology and biostatistics professor at Temple University, told Spotlight PA.

More school officials should heed that guidance and take advantage of the testing program the state is paying for and has made available to all.

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