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WI DHS announces free COVID-19 testing for schools this fall, based partially on Madison school’s success

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P 10 SCHOOL COVID-19 TESTING

MADISON (WKOW) -- There's still no coronavirus vaccine available for kids under 12, which means masks, distancing and frequent testing are still the best tools schools will have this fall to keep students safe.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is aiming to make that easier for any school in the state, using money from the federal stimulus bill passed in March to connect schools with labs to provide free coronavirus testing support.

It's a $175 million investment, so schools won't have to pay a dime.

"We'll be asking schools what the level of testing they are interested in would be," said Deputy Health Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk.

Van Dijk says DHS envisions the testing fitting into any of three categories: immediate testing for kids who show up to school with symptoms of COVID-19, surveillance testing to routinely check for COVID-19, and testing before big events, like proms.

Those functions would involve a number of different kinds of COVID-19 tests, which DHS says it would help to provide schools.

"It's really been designed around a number of districts that we have supported with testing in the spring months," Van Dijk said.

One of those districts is One City Schools in Madison, who 27 News profiled in February when the district was nationally recognized for its coronavirus testing procedures.

This May, those procedures got enhanced with DHS connected One City Schools with Madison-based Exact Sciences.

"They sent us the amount of samples that we needed, and they sent us the instructions," said One City Schools Director of Operations Isabel Perea. "We had a meeting with them, and they showed us how to use our system."

Perea says the partnership with Exact Sciences has helped to simplify what had developed into a complicated system of coronavirus testing at the district over the last year.

"(Students) have the chance to go at any time during the school time to get tested," Perea said. "Because of this partnership, we get very fast results for them."

DHS will cover testing for students, school staff and families. Perea says that will be helpful with mass vaccination sites like the Alliant Energy Center closing soon.

Van Dijk says the testing will be crucial to success next school year.

"This k-12 program is built on effective guidance and stands to make a real difference going into and throughout the next school year," she said.

Fall and winter are typically cold and flu season, which was much milder last year with all the masks and distancing. But with the country now unmasked but kids still unvaccinated against the coronavirus, health officials say testing and other mitigation strategies will be crucial to containing what could be a very difficult fall.

"In addition to whatever level of COVID-19 we have circulating, there's likely to be a lot of other viruses circulating that we really haven't seen in the past year," said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, DHS Chief Medical Officer and State Epidemiologist for Communicable Diseases.

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