Wake County students may soon have the chance to take COVID-19 tests at school after the school board agreed Tuesday to move forward with a voluntary testing program. 

Students would need to get their parents’ or guardians’ consent to participate in the weekly testing, which is state-funded. Although the board has not yet made an official decision on whether to implement voluntary testing, it is expected to come next month. The board directed Superintendent Cathy Moore and her staff to flesh out the details of such a program. 

“Testing does three things. It minimizes both contact and spread, it minimizes quarantines and, I think most importantly, it protects others who are unvaccinated,” said board Chairman Keith Sutton. “I don’t think we can afford to wait another day.”

Wake County schools are so short-staffed they would need help to administer COVID-19 tests, according to Paul Koh, assistant superintendent of Student Support Services. Superintendent Moore agreed, recommending against using school staff to test students. They are already burdened with the additional work of contact tracing and the priority needs to be on keeping teachers and staff in the classroom, Moore said.

Instead, the district would work with Mako Medical Laboratories to perform the tests and report the results. 

The district is also working with Mako to prepare a testing program for staff in anticipation of President Biden’s federal mandate taking effect. The order requires employees to either get vaccinated or get tested weekly for COVID-19. School district staff who work in the federally funded Head Start program will have until January to get vaccinated. 

Guidelines for implementing the federal mandate will be handed down from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within the next few weeks, according to school officials. The school district will then have 30 days to put a testing program in place.

Almost 90 percent of Wake County teachers and staff say they’re fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated, or plan to get the vaccine, according to a survey. About 7 percent of staff have not responded, while 2.6 percent say they don’t plan to get the vaccine. 

School officials hope to increase the number of students who are vaccinated to between 70 and 90 percent. The Pfizer vaccine is currently available to children ages 12-17, but could soon become available to children ages 5-11 under an emergency use authorization. In Wake County, 61 percent of eligible students are fully vaccinated and 66 percent have had at least one dose. 

More information about COVID-19 testing procedures will be presented to the school board October 5. 

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Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to jgallup@indyweek.com.