New York City is planning to end its program to administer weekly coronavirus tests to a random sample of students, Chalkbeat has learned, removing one of the last standing campus COVID safety measures.

The decision to discontinue on-site PCR testing after summer school ends was communicated internally last month, a source with knowledge of the program said.

“The city decided it was no longer necessary,” the source said, noting that a specific rationale wasn’t provided. Chalkbeat also reviewed communications that suggest the program is ending.

A City Hall spokesperson denied that the city’s plans for the fall have been finalized, but did not directly dispute that the city is moving away from in-school PCR testing.

“To be clear, no final decisions have been announced about testing in schools in the coming year,” wrote Amaris Cockfield, a mayoral spokesperson. “Anyone saying otherwise is speaking with absolutely no authority. We are still finalizing plans to keep schools safe and open this year, and will communicate our plan with families when there is an actual decision.”

Launched in fall 2020 as the city reopened school buildings for the first time, the program aimed to detect large outbreaks in schools and offer big-picture data about whether mitigation measures such as masks and social distancing were keeping the virus in check.

But the pandemic’s course — and the city’s responses to it — has changed significantly since the testing program was first conceived. Some public health experts had previously questioned whether the testing program was worth the expense at upwards of $30 million a month. (The program was initially supported by a $251 million federal grant though city officials have not revealed the program’s total cost.)

City officials have not yet shared what COVID safety measures will be in place next school year or what the city’s testing strategy might be. Last school year, schools initially sent home rapid kits to students and staff when they were exposed to someone in their classroom who tested positive, and later sent them home to everyone as a preventive measure. The goal was to identify cases when someone wasn’t feeling well, as well as to help clear them to return to buildings faster.

Dr. Jay Varma, a top health advisor to former Mayor Bill de Blasio who designed the in-school testing program, said that it could be appropriate to end the testing program as long as the city supplies rapid tests. Gov. Kathy Hochul has indicated the state is planning to make millions of rapid tests available to schools this fall.

“If every kid is going to get a supply of them weekly, then I think the city does not need to continue routine PCR screening,” Varma wrote in a message to Chalkbeat.

The city’s teachers union has been a major advocate for expanding the in-school PCR program, which allowed up to 10% of staff to be tested weekly by the end of last school year, though educators said that in practice the testing companies sometimes declined to test them. The source familiar with the city’s decision said the in-school PCR testing would no longer be available to staff.

Alison Gendar, a spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers, said the change needed to be negotiated with the union.

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  Aug 3, 2022, 7:30pm EDT