School district testing and tracing program needs funding

By Michael Skolnik

We are in the middle of a severe global pandemic that has seen more than 2.7 million Americans become afflicted with COVID-19 and has resulted in more than 130,000 deaths across the nation. Locally, our communities in Nevada have thankfully been below the national trend with approximately 18,000 cases, 11,000 recoveries (so far) and 500 deaths — until recently when case counts have again begun to rise. This past weekend in Clark County alone we experienced just more than 1,900 new cases, which represents a dramatic and worrisome increase. At the same time, Clark County is having a COVID-19 related economic meltdown that is creating financial catastrophes for many.

Unemployment rates have reached more than 33 percent, up from approximately 4.8 percent this same time last year. Central to bringing some normalcy back to our community and stability back to our economy will be reopening the 360 schools across Clark County so our children don’t fall behind on their education and parents can return to work. The challenges associated with reopening schools are many and very complex but start with protecting the health and safety of our roughly 40,000 teachers, administrators and staff who will be placing themselves at considerable risk and represent the most vulnerable within the Clark County School District (CCSD).   

While the federal government has misjudged the severity and impact of the virus and largely pushed responsibility for managing the COVID-19 crisis to the states without providing sufficient resources, our local officials have scrambled to establish strategies and infrastructure sufficient to address critical needs. Dr. Jesus Jara, superintendent of CCSD, has outlined a thoughtful school reopening plan that will creatively align teachers, students and technology to support both distance learning and classroom-based education, enforcing social distance norms and other protocols to limit the potential of creating COVID-19 “hot-spots” in our schools.  

Additionally, the governor and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) have put together a substantial contact tracing program. They have already employed more than 300 tracers to support community efforts to curtail the spread of the virus once it has been detected. These steps are vital but don’t go far enough. Missing in the plans so far are a comprehensive testing and risk mitigation strategy for the teachers, administrators and staff who will be in our schools interacting with our students and helping to manage the safety of our classrooms each day.        

Testing and monitoring are important tools in slowing the spread of COVID-19. When performed at scale in advance of school opening, they will help protect schools, build confidence among teachers and staff and establish an educational environment that prioritizes safety.  Ongoing screening and monitoring programs will allow us to quickly identify gaps in our COVID-19 programs, including when and where there are insufficient supplies or a potential outbreak so we can apply critical resources where they are needed most.  

COVID-19 is called a novel coronavirus for a reason. We need more data, not less. The ability to respond quickly when there are issues is paramount for keeping our schools open, and our teachers are the critical piece of the puzzle that can help us monitor what is happening on a daily or even hourly basis within our schools. We must do our best to protect them and give them the tools they need to help us manage this crisis. 

To effectively support the reopening of the schools and enable the economy to reopen in Clark County, the teachers health plan, school district, local hospitals/doctors, business leaders and infectious disease experts have formed a task force and developed a program for teacher, administrator and staff testing, risk management, education and support. The program developed, known as TIES (Taskforce Initiative for Educators Safety and Screening), will work in concert with regional health providers to develop a testing approach designed to support the needs of the Clark County teachers, staff and administrators. 

The program is prepared to deploy easy-to-use mobile software to help teachers and staff communicate with local and state COVID-19 response leaders, monitor their condition and manage their health risk. However, although there appears to be near-universal support for this program, we need funding. The pieces are all there. They are aligned and ready to go, but we’re stuck at the starting line with the clock running. The public needs to be aware that a plan has been developed, and that helps us all as we reach out to state officials to fund TIES. There are many priorities that state health leadership needs to focus on, but nothing could be more important than this initiative that will help to get our schools open again. 

We must do everything we can to help protect the health of our teachers, administrators, staff and students if we are to get our economy moving forward while avoiding a catastrophic surge in COVID-19 in Clark County. 

Michael Skolnik is CEO of the Teachers Health Trust, the dedicated not-for-profit health plan serving more than 40,000 Clark County teachers and their dependents. Michael has in the past worked with a range of health industry clients including Alameda Health System, Canopy Health, CareMore and many mid-sized self-funded health plans, employer groups and Medical Groups/IPAs. He has a Master of Science degree in Health Care and Business Administration from Trinity University.