The Grant County Health Board rescinded COVID-19 testing mandates and recommendations for local schools at a special meeting Wednesday following further state and national guidance and the advice of legal counsel.
At a special meeting on June 22, the board approved a policy pending the approval of legal counsel requiring all local K-12 school employees and all students involved in athletics and performing arts be tested for COVID-19 at least three weeks prior to the start of school. The policy also recommended that all students K-12 should be tested three weeks before school starts regardless of their activities.
Board attorney David Glickfield said he reviewed state statutes with county commissioners’ attorney Kyle Persinger, and they both came to the conclusion that the health board did not have the authority to mandate testing unless there was an emergency declaration in effect. The State of Indiana’s public health emergency declaration is set to expire July 4.
“We’ll revert to what our state statute says, and our state statute basically says unless we can show it’s an emergency we can’t do this,” he said. “When you reviewed this you were under a different, under a state of emergency, and I think that’s ending shortly so the powers that come from that are going to end on that date.”
Glickfield cautioned that even if the board did have the authority to mandate the testing, they would have to give those opposed to the testing mandate the opportunity to argue against it in court which would open the board up to court costs and legal fees.
“Normally when you want to do something and you’re going to impinge on somebody’s liberties or freedom, they have to have an opportunity to be heard in court,” Glickfield said. “As it stands right now, I don’t even think we could win if we went to court. We have to provide that opportunity unless an emergency exists and as it sits right now I don’t think we can get to that level to do that.”
Glickfield said Grant County Health Officer Dr. William David Moore does have certain powers and authorities under state statute to take certain action he deems necessary, such as closing a school that sees an outbreak of COVID-19 cases, but those are exceptions that would not apply to the testing mandate policy the board passed.
Health board member Dr. Philip Renfroe asked if there was a certain threshold of infected children or other guidelines for how Moore should make a decision to close a school.
“I assume if we get to that point the two of us will discuss and we’ll see if that is necessary,” Glickfield responded. “I’m assuming we’ll bring in the school, get their take on that, but he does have that ability. But I’m sure that’s a power that he would wield if it was necessary but would certainly administer properly.”
Moore said following Glickfield’s advice, he was prepared to recommend the board change the mandates to strong recommendations that school employees and students in extracurricular activities be tested.
However, he has since been in contact with ISDH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver and informed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now not recommending broad testing as a screening for asymptomatic school employees and students. The CDC guidance states universal testing for school communities has not been symptomatically studied and it’s currently unknown if testing would help reduce spread of the virus any more than social distancing, wearing masks, hand washing and other disinfection would bring, Moore said.
“Therefore CDC does not recommend universal testing of all students and staff,” Moore said, reading from a text message detailing the latest CDC guidance. “Implementation of a universal approach to testing in schools may impose challenges such as a lack of infrastructure to support routine testing, a follow up in the school setting, unknown acceptability of this testing approach among students, parents and staff, lack of dedicated resources, practical considerations related to testing minors and potential disruption in the educational environment.”
According to Moore, federal provisions stating Medicaid and Medicare would cover the cost of COVID-19 tests are also changing and testing for “surveillance or employment purposes” (for asymptomatic individuals) is no longer required to be covered.
Moore said this could lead to asymptomatic individuals no longer being able to receive a test if they want one at state-run Optum testing sites if there is no clear answer who will pay for the test or if the Optum qualifications change and no longer accept asymptomatic individuals.
As of Thursday, the ISDH website still states that any individual who lives or works in Indiana is eligible for free COVID-19 testing at the Optum sites, including the Marion location at the Clarence Faulkner Community Center, 1221 W 12th St.
“I think that we should say that testing is helpful but I don’t think that we can even now say that we recommend that all of the teachers be tested, all of the personnel be tested based on what Dr. Weaver told me today,” Moore said. “Nor can we say that all of the athletes just because they’re going to be in high risk should be tested and expect that that should be covered by the Optum (testing) that is there. So the landscape has changed radically in the nine days since we last made our recommendation.”
Due to the updated guidance and information, the board voted unanimously to rescind the two mandates and the one recommendation regarding testing for schools. Renfroe noted the board and Moore were working with the best information they had at the time when the policy was approved, but now it is not feasible.
“I think that this plan was made in good faith in an effort to try to control and address problems before they arise, so I commend Dr. Moore’s efforts to be proactive in this particular area,” he said.
Since large scale testing as a way to screen for COVID-19 in schools no longer seems feasible, board member Chad Leighty asked how schools were preparing to teach staff and students alike to self-screen for symptoms of the coronavirus.
Marion Community Schools nurse Sue Nicholson said the state is going to be sharing a Powerpoint or webinar presentation so all districts are on the same page on how to teach self-screening. From there, Nicholson said at Marion the plan is to train teachers on screening during in-service days before school and teach send guidance to kids at home and teach screening in classrooms in August.
Leighty also asked where things stood with districts’ mask-wearing policies. Mississinewa Community Schools Superintendent Tab McKenzie said his district has purchased masks for every employee and is working to get masks for every student, and it will be strongly recommended that individuals wear masks in school.
“We’re not going to mandate it at this point and I’m not aware of any public school in Grant County that intends to mandate at this point,” he said. “But as everybody knows, things are changing nationally and in my mind I’m wanting Mississinewa to be prepared for the very real possibility that it could be mandated in the future during this coming school year and we want to be ready for that possibility.”