The Pennsylvania Constitution says that education is a right for every child in the commonwealth. Nowhere is that right subject to contingencies.
However, a new program being shopped around by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Policy Lab to county health departments statewide could place roadblocks between students and education, including a frightening violation of children’s privacy.
The CHOP Policy Lab is guiding the implementation of a project called Assisting Childhood Education through Increased Testing (ACE-It). Despite CHOP acknowledging the evidence that schools are not a significant source of Covid-19 spread, they argue that adding routine school-based Covid-19 testing of all children to existing infection-control measures “can help maintain a safe, healthy environment for in-person learning by reducing opportunities for transmission.”
A group of parents researched the proposed testing program to gain a better understanding of what it would entail for our children if county health departments and school boards adopt it. We have multiple concerns.
First, many parents believe that children have already suffered enough emotional trauma as a result of draconian lockdowns and year-long school closures. By requiring all children to get tested regularly in school, baseless fear will be perpetuated. Normalcy can never return to the classroom if children are constantly treated as if they face imminent sickness simply for entering school grounds.
Second, it is a privacy violation to require this level of access to children’s personal health information in school. Per the Centers for Disease Control, surveillance testing “is performed on de-identified specimens, and thus results are not linked to individuals,” and “cannot be used for individual decision-making.” But the CHOP Policy Lab plans to make it very personal. Children would be assigned QR codes for their tests and then they’d be registered with the state.
Will parents even be notified that their child is being tested? Prior to coronavirus, these questions would be considered absurd, but today they are legitimate concerns for parents.
CHOP Policy Lab implies in their FAQ that reporting test results to the state is required by law. But that is only true If used in the context of testing symptomatic individuals, not for surveillance testing. The CDC even specifies that “surveillance testing results also should not be officially reported to the local, state, tribal, or territory health department as diagnostic or screening test results.”
Third, such a program would place government bureaucracy between parents and their children. What if a parent does not want their child tested? Will they be given an option, or will the child be sent home? Worse yet, will parents even be notified that their child is being tested? Prior to coronavirus, these questions would be considered absurd, but today they are legitimate concerns for parents.
Fourth, even if parents are ok with their children being regularly subject to medical testing in school, the tests being chosen aren’t meant for such a purpose. The suggested testing plan utilizes the BinaxNOW antigen test, which is less accurate and less expensive than Polymerase Chain Reaction tests. The BInaxNOW test is designed for confirming infection in symptomatic people, not asymptomatic children in school. It has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. And the FDA Emergency Use Authorization for antigen testing states that it is only authorized as a diagnostic test for symptomatic people, not approved for weekly tests of asymptomatic children.
From page 5 of the Project: Ace-It Implementation guide issued Jan 4,2021:
“The primary benefit of using these tests is that they are ideal for use in settings that need rapid, low-tech testing. Considerably more accurate than previous generations of antigen tests, not only are BinaxNow tests useful for symptomatic testing; but also, they are increasingly recommended for surveillance or “assurance testing.” These tools were specifically intended to support our critical infrastructure and surveillance screening in congregate settings, such as a school environment.”
Fifth, the CDC’s recommendation for testing asymptomatic people to monitor and prevent outbreaks is meant solely for congregate care facilities, which is defines as shared housing facilities like nursing homes or college dorms. Public school students do not reside at school, nor are they sharing kitchen appliances or laundry facilities.
As a way to pressure counties into fully implementing their program and providing as much personal information as possible, the CHOP Policy Lab is providing free BinaxNOW tests to counties that participate in the program. At this point, it’s unclear whether that bait has been fully taken by local counties.
In Bucks County, for example, the health department initially used free kits provided by CHOP for testing symptomatic teachers and teachers being tested upon return from quarantine at three county-run locations not on school grounds. However, the department did not want to create testing facilities in each school or perform regular testing of healthy kids and teachers, despite CHOP’s insistence. Consequently, they were denied further free test kits by CHOP. The very successful off-site testing program has still been able to expand to include symptomatic children since Bucks County has found other ways to obtain materials for their initiative.
In other regional counties, it is unclear what is planned. When questioned, West Chester Area School District stated that they would be testing teachers initially, but was unclear about whether a Memorandum of Agreement for participation in ACE-IT meant that they’d be testing all students. There are other Chester, Delaware, and Philadelphia County schools that are already testing children at school. Some are limited to student athletes, but most schools are also unclear or vague about what they are doing.
The question remains whether in-person education will be contingent on regular, even potentially weekly testing of children. Despite the evidence that significant transmission of the virus is not occurring at school, CHOP has designed and is implementing a highly disturbing program under the guise of public health. These extraordinary intrusions demand extraordinary justification, and thus far, there is little evidence to support this overreach.
Beth Ann Rosica, Ph.D., a parent in the West Chester Area School District and an advocate for educationally disadvantaged students across the country, has a private consulting business in the Education and Human Services field.