ITHACA, N.Y.—The Ithaca City School District will now offer COVID-19 testing to any student whose parents consent to it, meeting a new request by New York State that school districts increase testing capacity for students.

The testing program was announced Tuesday in a letter to the community from Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown and during that night’s Board of Education meeting. Symptomatic COVID-19 testing had already started in schools last week, but the screening (formerly known as surveillance) testing expansion will greatly increase the number of tests available for students each week.

Deputy Superintendent Lily Talcott said at Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting that the district expects about 3,000 students to opt into the testing program, which would represent about 60 percent of the district’s total student population (though it is unclear exactly how many of the district’s total student population is vaccinated, since children over 12 are eligible to receive the vaccine). It is projected to start in every school within the next two weeks.

To help handle the new testing burden, the district is partnering with Affinity Empowering, an organization that provides testing services to K-12 schools throughout the country as part of Operation Expanded Testing, fueled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to the organization’s site. Parents can register their students here.

A wider discussion of how the district is handling in-person classes and COVID-19 took place at the Board of Education meeting Tuesday night as well. Student representatives raised objections to how the district has handled notifying students of people in their classrooms testing positive for COVID-19—or, how they haven’t handled it. The full meeting video is available here.

Adam Saar, a student at Ithaca High School, stated that he and other student reps had conducted a survey of 336 students, with 321 of them saying they would want to be informed if someone in their class had tested positive, even if they aren’t identified as a close contact (most students, even if they’re in the same classroom, are not identified as close contacts to a positive case because that would mean they were unmasked or violating spacing concerns, both of which have been points of emphasis in district buildings).

“I understand their privacy and all, but I feel we have a right to a little info,” said Grace Lim, another student rep. A third student rep asked the school district to provide students with the option to waive their medical privacy (only regarding a positive COVID test).

District officials said that parents are told when someone in the school tests positive, information that is also posted to the district’s website, but aren’t specifically notified when the student is in their child’s classroom unless their child is identified as a close contact, which means they would have to quarantine. That decision is made by the Tompkins County Health Department, with contact tracing assistance provided by the district.

Brown strongly disagreed with the students, positing that telling students when someone tests positive in their classroom would be too close to identifying the actual student who tested positive. The student reps argued that a student suddenly missing class for 10 days, which happens in the case of a positive test or a quarantine, is identifiable enough already, but Brown was not receptive.

“I don’t want us to be in the situation where we’re identifying people by class,” Brown said. “There are a number of other reasons why I wouldn’t want a young person’s medical information identifiable.”

Brown said one way to combat that is to treat everyone like they are a positive case, reflected in the district’s current universal masking and distancing policies. But he remained steadfast that positive tests would not be revealed on a classroom-by-classroom basis. The student reps pointed out that the lack of official information from the district leaves an information vacuum where rumors can permeate about who has or hasn’t tested positive, though Brown said the onus to fight that is on students. 

“I’ll be looking to our student leaders and other leaders to help us with the culture,” Brown said. “Me as the superintendent putting that information out, that makes it official. That informs the culture at a level that I’m not comfortable with.” 

“There’s no way around this,” said BoE member Patricia Wasyliw. 

Fellow member Sean Eversley Bradwell assured the students that they would try to find some better way, but that there “aren’t many good options.”

Relatedly, Brown said they were working with the health department to organize a vaccination clinic in one of the district’s schools, but nothing is imminent. Wasyliw noted that there may be state money available to organize that type of clinic. 

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com