OLATHE, Kan. — Johnson County schools are getting a critical new tool to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
On Tuesday, districts learned the county has secured funding for saliva tests kits to help track cases in schools.
Johnson County districts are starting school in just a few days — some virtual, some hybrid — but all have a goal of getting every student back in school building. Leaders said this testing program is a game-changer in making that possible.
Shawnee Mission classrooms will be empty for now as the district plans to begin with full remote learning.
“We’re going to take this slow, methodical, and eventually get to the point where we reach our end goal, which is having all students in school but with all the protocols in place to reduce the risk as much as possible,” Superintendent Dr. Mike Fulton said.
In recent weeks, districts have been bombarded with emails, calls and protests as parents and students demand in-person learning and sports.
But one major hurdle stands in the way.
“We realize without a robust testing strategy, it will be extraordinarily difficult for us to make the kinds of decisions we need to make that allow us to do our very best, to be a partner in stopping the transmission of COVID-19 in our schools and in our community,” Fulton said.
But during a virtual town hall Wednesday, Shawnee Mission and districts around Johnson County learned help is coming.
The health department has secured an extra $200,000 from county commissioners to buy saliva test kits specifically for schools.
“We’re going to be able to test thousands of students and teachers and staff, and that’s a game-changer for us,” said Dr. Sanmi Areola, director of the Johnson County health department.
At least 2,000 kits will be available initially.
The less-intrusive saliva tests don’t need a health expert to administer them. The patient just spits into a test tube, and it’s sent to a local lab with results ready in a day or two.
“We need to be testing,” said Elizabeth Holzschuh, an epidemiologist with the health department. “We need to find those positives so public health can do its job to try to slow that spread.”
Schools said with a better handle on how COVID-19 spreads in classrooms, they can more quickly ID anyone who needs to quarantine, potentially move faster toward shifting educational modes and bring more kids back for classes and extracurricular activities.
Health experts and schools also continue to plead with the community to wear their masks and avoid large gatherings, especially headed into the Labor Day holiday weekend.
There were big spikes after summer holidays and graduation parties, and they don’t want to see that happen again. It will only slow the progress of getting all kids back in school, they said.