ITHACA, N.Y.—The Ithaca City School District is debuting a surveillance COVID-19 testing program on Jan. 4, 2021, designed to detect positive coronavirus cases as early as possible and stem any school-based outbreaks.

The new policy falls in line with state requirements for locales that have been deemed Yellow Zones, although ICSD and the surrounding area have not actually been categorized as a yellow outbreak zone by the state and don’t seem likely to be. More details will be available at an information session held later this week.

Tests are not mandatory, but the district aims to test 20 percent of every school’s in-person population every two weeks, including students and staff. They will be administering the tests at individual school sites at every school in ICSD each week. The surveillance program will take place on Mondays for students from pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade, and Mondays and Thursdays for students in sixth grade through 12th grade.

The district is currently looking to obtain consent from as many parents of students as possible for the testing program. Instead of the nasal pharyngeal swab, which includes taking a sample from far back in the nasal cavity, the district will employ BinaxNOW antigen rapid tests, which are conducted through a swab of the front of the nasal cavity, according to the district’s Coordinator of Health Services and Wellness, Kari Burke.

The tests are being provided by New York State, with no charge to the school district. ICSD Deputy Superintendent Lily Talcott said positive tests will be detected within 15 minutes of when they are administered.

There will also be a virtual family information session held Wednesday, Dec. 30 at 5:30 p.m., where people can ask questions about the program and its implementation. You can click here to register for the meeting. 

As for why the program is being implemented, Talcott said that the district believes it is the best way to support in-person and distance learning, and that the district wants to be able to quarantine or isolate cohorts or classes instead of entire schools, as happened throughout the fall period. Talcott compared closing whole school buildings in reaction to positive COVID-19 tests and resulting quarantines to “performing surgery with a weed-whacker.”

“The ICSD will conduct surveillance testing for COVID-19 to allow us to quickly identify asymptomatic students and staff within our communities and begin the isolation process for these individuals,” according to the district’s FAQ page. “It will also allow students and staff within close contact of the positive case to immediately return home, as they may be subject to quarantine by the Tompkins County Health Department (TCHD). All of these efforts will ultimately help our community slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Burke said this has proven to be the most effective and expedient way to react to positive COVID-19 tests in schools, while still being able to minimize the number of people who have to quarantine as a result of being determined to be a close contact of someone who did test positive.

“We already have (the tests),” Talcott told the ICSD Board of Education last week. “We will be getting thousands more on Jan. 6.”

Board President Rob Ainslie clarified that unlike in October, this would not necessarily take the form of an entry testing program, as only 10 percent of students and staff will be tested on the first day, and the program will be ongoing each week. The board also briefly discussed calling the program a “proactive” testing regimen in order to encourage more people to participate, avoiding some of the negative connotations associated with the word “surveillance.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at