By Callie Hietala
A motion that would have provided a 30-day trial of regular COVID-19 testing for winter student athletes was tabled by the Martinsville City School Board at a Nov. 8 meeting.
Several board members wanted to give the matter further thought before a vote. The school division had hoped to begin the pilot program by mid-week.
Felicia Preston, director of pupil personnel and foster care/homeless liaison, said she and colleague Cindy Dutil were directed by Superintendent Dr. Zebedee Talley to investigate options for testing to help reduce the number of students who miss stretches of in-person learning due to quarantine protocols and to mitigate the spread of Covid in the schools.
“Last year,” Talley said, “we learned that most of the (in-school COVID) spread came from athletics.” He said that several neighboring counties including Roanoke and Franklin counties are implementing regular student or student athlete testing.
“There are several different models to this,” Preston said, citing the ViSSTA (Virginia School Screening Testing for Assurance) Program which was developed by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and is focused on testing pools of students in the schools.
The proposed 30-day pilot program would be run through the Danville-based Unity Mobile Health, LLC. All winter student athletes, regardless of vaccination status, would be tested twice weekly with a nasal swab rapid test. The program also would include students participating in programs like Scholastic Bowl.
“They won’t be tested on game days, they will be tested on practice days,” Preston said, adding that all testing would, for the most part, occur at the practice location, and be done at no cost to the schools, the student, or families.
“Parents have to give consent,” Preston added, and noted that if a parent did not consent, the student would not be allowed to play.
She said that the school held a Zoom meeting for students who were considering trying out for winter sports and their parents to let everyone know what to expect with regards to testing before tryouts. The goal was to avoid the possibility that students would try out, make the team, but be barred from playing due to an unwillingness to get tested or inability to get parental consent.
Test results would be given to the coaches and parents would be notified.
“We’re trying to help as many students that want to play continue to play,” Preston said.
Talley added that the goal of the pilot program is to protect the entire academic community and to help keep students in school. Academic, not athletic, success is the division’s first priority.
“We’re student athletes, not athlete students,” he said, “the most important thing is keeping kids in school learning. That will always be the focus.” He added that participating in athletics is a privilege. “The end game is to keep young people in school and people safe.”
School board member Emily Parker expressed concern that students might be deprived of the opportunity to play if parents would not consent to being tested.
“If the parent has not consented, they cannot practice nor play in the sport that they’ve chosen to play in? So, it cuts their opportunity off without parental consent.” She also questioned the relative accuracy of rapid tests.
Talley predicted testing programs in various forms would become more common throughout school systems.
Chairman Donna Dillard said she would entertain a motion to approve the program. Finally, after a long pause, Anthony Jones, who attended via phone, made the motion, with a second from Jay Dickens.
Dillard voted yes. Yvonne Givens thought for a long moment, asked if her only options were to vote yes or no, and ultimately voted yes.
Dickens said there were several points he would like to learn more about before he cast his vote, including data about the efficacy of rapid tests and information about how other divisions that have already started student testing have fared with the program. He said schools should provide additional information and details to parents and students about the program and would like to more closely examine the ViSSTA program which did not focus solely on athletes. He also questioned why only student athletes would be subject to testing under the proposed pilot program and not their coaches.
“I’m concerned about a burden of ‘if you don’t consent to this, you can’t participate,’ said Parker. “That bothers me. That’s a little too much.”
While she understood the underlying concern was student health and safe participation, “so I’m torn,” she said.
Ultimately, the board decided to table the agenda item until its next meeting.
In other matters, the board:
*Heard from Piedmont Arts Executive Director Heidi Pinkston and Director of Programs Sarah Short on the benefit of arts education and programs available to schools and students.
*Heard from Coordinator of Academic Interventions, Title III, Foreign Language, and Mentoring Dr. Tamra Vaughan, School Psychologist Dr. Travis Worrell, and Felicia Preston of the social-emotional learning task force about the implementation of the evidence-based Behavior and Emotional Screening System (BESS) designed for children ages 3-18 which will be implementing in the school division next month.
*Heard from Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Angilee Downing on workforce readiness and academic gaps in the student population.
*Approved the consent agenda.
*Approved language changes and updated legal references to policy manual.
*Heard the superintendent’s report.