Since Berkeley High School’s (BHS) return from winter break, there have been more empty desks and missing teachers. This is no surprise, given that COVID-19 case counts across the country are surging due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant. According to the City of Berkeley’s COVID-19 dashboard, cases rose to five times their previous number over winter break. By continuing to provide rapid testing, BHS can ensure that all students are healthier, both physically and mentally, and are able to access tests, which could otherwise be prohibitively expensive.
Before winter break, Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD), along with all California public schools, was provided with over 12,000 at-home COVID-19 test kits, enough for all students and staff members within the district. These tests have no doubt limited the number of COVID-19 positive students who have returned to school. According to a January 5 slidedeck put together by BUSD, about 75 percent of the tests were self-administered. Of these, 225 students and teachers across the district reported positive results, a case positivity rate of 3.01 percent. This number is extremely high, and it’s good that these cases were caught one week into the return to school. As of January 11, BHS has offered testing twice a week on campus. Perhaps the next step to shorten long lines and avoid after-school scheduling conflicts, and thus encourage more students to take these COVID-19 tests, is to make at-home rapid tests available for students to administer on their own time.
Consistently, testing has proved to be an effective way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. In her November article titled, “Should We Be Counting Covid Cases?” economist Emily Oster writes that in order to reduce serious illness due to COVID-19, we need to make testing widely available, even if completely eliminating cases is no longer the explicit goal. While rapid, at-home tests may not be as sensitive as lab-based ones, they are less expensive and produce results within minutes. Granted, purchasing, distributing, and processing thousands of COVID-19 tests takes a toll on everyday BUSD core functions, but this is a short-term inconvenience for the long-term gain of heighted health and safety. In order to limit the spread of COVID-19, we must stick to the facts — along with proper masking, testing is one of the best defenses against the virus.
While some would argue that funds for more tests are hard to come by, the money is out there. According to the Biden administration’s National Strategy for COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, the US Department of Health and Human Resources has invested more than 12 billion dollars to expand COVID-19 testing. This includes funding for COVID-19 tests that have helped schools across the country safely reopen. More recently, Governor Gavin Newsom gave a speech in which he committed to make at-home tests “available to every K-12 public school student as they head back to the classroom from winter break,” and he has largely followed through. This suggests that there is a potential for additional funds provided by the country or state that BUSD can put towards purchasing more COVID-19 tests.
In order to keep BUSD students and staff safe during this pandemic, the district must continue to do its best to ensure that tests are as widely accessible as possible. Providing testing is not only essential in slowing COVID-19 transmission within the BUSD community, but also viable with potential funding coming from the state. With rapid test kits supplied by the school district, we can continue to limit the spread of the virus that has upended our lives for nearly two years.