PA Offering Free Weekly COVID-19 Testing to Schools

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Sarah Marshall). The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Pennsylvania will offer voluntary, free COVID-19 testing for all K-12 schools and institutions of higher education during the 2021-2022 school year, state health and education officials announced Monday, Aug. 16.

School districts will have to opt-in to the program, and parents will have to give consent to participate in the weekly testing program. The program is the latest effort by state officials to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and outbreaks in schools and maintain in-person learning during the 2021-2022 school year.

“A priority of the Wolf Administration is to have and maintain in-person instruction, sports programs, and other extra-curricular activities at schools,” Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said. “Unfortunately, we continue to see predominately unvaccinated Pennsylvanians infected with multiple variants of COVID-19, including the highly contagious Delta variant. This reinforces the need for accessible COVID-19 vaccinations for eligible individuals in K-12 schools so that our students, teachers and staff can stay safe.”

The Departments of Health and Education announced that they would partner with Concentric by Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based firm, to provide the free testing. Ginkgo received an $87 million contract to provide the tests, with the funds coming from the state’s share of federal COVID-relief funds.

The program will be available to all schools, public and private, across the commonwealth, except in Philadelphia County, which has its own testing program.

“Early detection like this is exactly what we need to keep students in classrooms, and COVID out,” Beam said.

Concentric by Ginkgo operates statewide programs in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Arizona, North Carolina, and other states. The program has already been piloted in Pennsylvania and is immediately accepting sign-ups from schools and districts.

“Students and teachers across Pennsylvania are looking forward to returning to their classrooms for the new school year – let’s do everything we can to make sure they are safe while teaching, learning, and growing together,” said Secretary of Education Noe Ortega. “We encourage Pennsylvania’s schools to continue to coordinate COVID-19 vaccination clinics and participate in the free COVID-19 testing program to help protect their communities and maintain healthy conditions.”

For K-12 schools that participate, pooled testing will be performed weekly to identify and prevent the spread of COVID-19 throughout the schools. Mid-nasal swab and saliva-based polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests will be performed. The turnaround time for testing results is 1-2 days after testing.

Additionally, starting Monday, the Pennsylvania DOH is directing vaccine providers to support COVID-19 vaccination clinics at institutions of higher education and K-12 schools.

When requested to do so by any institution of higher education or school entity, vaccine providers are expected to make every effort to coordinate a vaccine clinic for the employees, contractors, volunteers, students, or students’ families of the school. The clinics can be held at the school or at a location agreed upon by the school and vaccine provider.

“Despite COVID-19 vaccines being available for some individuals, adolescents under the age of 12 still cannot be vaccinated to protect themselves against the virus,” Beam continued. “That is why we are encouraging all K-12 schools to take advantage of a unique opportunity to bring COVID-19 testing into your schools free of charge. It is imperative that students, educators, and staff who feel they need or want a test, especially if they think they have been exposed to COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms, have access to free COVID-19 testing. In addition to getting vaccinated, this testing initiative is another tool in our toolbox for schools to keep ‘Friday night lights’ shining brightly this year.”