Kids returning to school amid omicron surge; Seattle schools offering rapid tests

KING COUNTY, Wash. — COVID-19 cases in King County are averaging about 2,000 new cases every day, as schools around the state gear up to return to in-person learning.

Now, Seattle Public Schools has canceled classes for Monday in order to give any student or staff member the opportunity to take a rapid test before returning to the classroom on Tuesday.

The district is offering large-scale voluntary rapid testing for all students and staff at a dozen middle schools Monday, plus a special rapid testing session on Sunday for Central and Southeast Seattle schools. SPS will be using Abbott’s BinaxNOW antigen test after getting 60,000 of the rapid tests from the Washington State Department of Health.

“The goal is to minimize transmission of the virus obviously. We want to reduce the intermittent disruptions to in-person learning,” said Tim Robinson, a spokesperson for Seattle Public Schools. “Home test kids have been tough to access in some places so this is a good opportunity,” he said.

The FDA warned this week that rapid tests are “less likely to pick up very early infections” compared to PCR tests — for example, if someone is showing no symptoms yet. Abbott, the manufacturer of the tests SPS will be using, said in a statement on Tuesday that its lab analyses showed its test does detect the omicron variant at “equivalent sensitivity as other variants.”

Some Seattle parents say they will plan to get their kids tested Monday as a precaution.

“We understand schools will do what they have to minimize mass spreading and any issues they would have,” said Mike Putnam, parent to a first grader and pre-K student. “So I think we will try to go and get them both tested,” he said.

Students will be able to walk in without an appointment to the test locations on Monday, but students going to the Sunday testing event are asked to register online.

Other parents say the testing measures don’t seem necessary.

“We have three kids and they’re all vaccinated. So at this point, I’m just like why? Why are we doing this anymore? Plus with this variant, it sounds like it’s pretty mild so I don’t get it,” said Amparo Warwick, a Shoreline parent.

Students whom KIRO 7 spoke with on New Year’s Eve said they weren’t too worried about the spread of omicron in schools, but made it clear they’re fed up with the pandemic.

“I had a mild case of it once,” said Wyatt Markley, a Lake Stevens eighth-grader. “COVID can go away,” he said.

“I’m vaccinated and always wear my mask at school so I don’t feel as scared,” said Elena Warwick, a Shoreline ninth-grader. Warwick said she was more worried about having to go back to being fully remote than she was about the virus.

The DOH, which provided SPS with the rapid tests, emphasized on Thursday that it’s urging schools to keep students in person “to the greatest extent possible.” However, the department acknowledged that with omicron’s spread, some switches to remote learning will likely be necessary.

“I do think we are likely to see some classroom or school closures, given the level of disease out there,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for COVID-19 response for the DOH.

The FDA is warning people that two rapid tests on the market are unable to detect the omicron variant, and says they should not be used:

— Meridian Bioscience Inc.’s Revogene SARS-CoV-2

— Applied DNA Science Linea’s COVID-19 Assay Kit