Updated December 3, 2020 - 7:00 am
An app-based program to test and retest the 42,000 employees of the Clark County School District for COVID-19 made its debut on Wednesday.
Known as the Taskforce Initiative for Educator Safety &Screening (TIES), the program allows employees to screen themselves for symptoms, participate in contact tracing and schedule free COVID-19 tests.
Though the district remains in a distance learning environment for students, some employees of the nation’s fifth-largest public school district have continually worked on school campuses during the 2020-21 school year. There have been 629 COVID-19 cases reported among district staff — whether working on campus or not — since March, with another 382 cases reported among the district’s roughly 310,000 students.
The testing program has already been available to around 5,500 public education employees in other parts of Nevada, including in nine rural school districts and the State Public Charter School Authority, according to a press release from the Teachers Health Trust (THT), the entity administering the program. To date, 58 TIES participants have tested positive.
Those who participate in the program will receive an alert if they’ve had close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, with an in-app badge changing from green to yellow to indicate the exposure.
App supports vaccination program
Michael Skolnik, CEO of THT Health, said in a statement that the goal is to ensure the safety of the entire Clark County community.
“By getting teachers to test and monitor their symptoms now, they will establish good public health habits that will support (the) reopening of schools in 2021,” Skolnik said. “Furthermore, when a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, TIES can support the next phase of the pandemic response and help our educators return to some level of normalcy with lower risk.”
The program is funded by $13.2 million in CARES Act funding that are available through Dec. 31, but its continued funding depends on future installments of the grant, according to the press release.
A testing, screening and contact tracing program was a primary condition of the teachers’ union, the Clark County Education Association, before schools reopened, along with a CDC-recommended positivity rate threshold of 5 percent or lower in the community. Clark County’s rate stands at a moving average of 17.6 percent over the last two weeks, as calculated by the state.
Union President Marie Neisess said in an interview that she hopes employees choose to get tested after the Thanksgiving break. While COVID-19 testing is typically free, Neisess pointed out that the cost is absorbed by health insurance plans, while TIES relies on CARES Act funding.
Participation in the program is voluntary, she said, though the union is in negotiations with the district on topics such as whether a certain percentage of the staff will need to be tested regularly and how often tests will occur. She pointed to New York City schools, which mandate testing of 20 percent of in-person students and staff every week if they’re in a high-risk area.
Work-at-home option urged
Employees who don’t want to get tested, as well as those who don’t feel comfortable returning to the classroom, should have an option to work from home, Neisess said, as it’s likely that there will also be a portion of the district’s students who choose to remain in distance learning for the rest of the year.
Another priority for the union in negotiations is ensuring that employees have adequate access to personal protective equipment, Neisess said.
“We want to make sure that this doesn’t come out of an educator’s pocket. Time and time again, that’s what educators do — we spend money to ensure our students get what they need,” she said. “We’re definitely advocating for additional funding so that when we go back, if we go back in January, all of that is in place.”
While there is no current proposed date for a return to schools, Neisess said the union is having regular conversations with district officials and supports a return once its priorities for safety are satisfied.
“We’re very concerned about our students and we know they’re falling further and further behind,” Neisess said. “It’s not about not opening. It’s about opening as safe as possible.”