South Ward Elementary

Classroom doors are left open to help with air circulation Monday, Aug. 17, at Longview ISD's South Ward Elementary School.

Longview ISD’s desire to provide weekly coronavirus testing for all students and faculty could make it the first district in the state to implement such a plan.

Trustees on Wednesday heard a presentation from Superintendent James Wilcox on the possible partnership with a company called US Med Test that would provide the screenings. Trustees voted in favor of allowing Wilcox to explore the partnership.

“To the best of my knowledge, no one in the state has taken these steps,” he said. “All I know is I do not want to see public schools shut down again, and I think we have to be proactive.”

Assistant superintendents Dennis Williams and James Hockenberry reported at Wednesday’s board meeting that the district has nine students and 16 staff members out after positive COVID-19 tests. Williams said six other students are quarantining because of other exposure, and Hockenberry said five other staff members also are out while they quarantine.

Research shows children with the virus typically are asymptomatic, Wilcox said. So those students could pass morning temperature screenings on campuses and expose staff members and their classmates.

He also said about 50% of the district’s staff members have some kind of underlying health condition that makes them at higher risk for the virus.

The Texas Tribune reported the state will start tracking and releasing information on COVID-19 cases in state schools.

Wilcox said, as his grandfather would say, “that’s like locking the barn door after all the horses have been stolen.”

“Telling people how many students have it doesn’t keep students and faculty members from contracting the disease,” he said. “That’s what we have to stop.

“What I’m asking for is authority to continue discussion on developing this diagnostic protocol and taking some pretty complicated, some pretty far-reaching steps for our students, our faculty and our community.”

Wilcox said the district has been in communication with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath and other state officials.

Should the district get approval, Wilcox said it will be asking to use federal relief funding to the state that was rescinded.

“There is money there that is still dedicated to Texas,” Wilcox said. He said he hopes Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn can work together to make that money available quickly to fund the project.

While he supported the decision to move forward with exploring the partnership, Trustee Troy Simmons said he is concerned the district is “being used.”

“It just bothers me that if we’ve got that kind of political support to do it, why isn’t it being rolled out statewide so we’re not just doing it ourselves? We have no way of testing other kids in other districts. ... That’s just not fair to the rest of the population of the state and nation,” Simmons said. “We’ll be the ones leading again, and I don’t mind us being the ones leading. ... That’s just another responsibility laid on the back of a school district.”

Wilcox said in his conversations with Morath, the commissioner said he has been looking for a way to do this type of testing at the state level for weeks and has not been able to put anything together like Longview ISD has.

The initial test will be a rapid response saliva test, Wilcox said. If that screening comes back positive, the company the district wants to work with has “every test available” to follow other protocols.

If approved, Wilcox said he wants to work with the company until there is a COVID-19 vaccine, which could mean a year to a year and a half.

The partner company can provide the necessary staff to administer the tests, and the district’s 19 nurses would be trained, he said.

Trustee Chris Mack said he supports the decision because once symptoms of the virus start to show, it is often too late to prevent exposure, so it is best to get the infected student off campus before that is an issue.

Wilcox said the testing also would meet all privacy and HIPPA regulations to protect medical information.

“Our justification is we’re developing a system that could change the 2020-21 school year for the state of Texas and beyond,” Wilcox said. “Every day another student, another person gets infected and something could have been done to stop that from happening.”