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Random, voluntary COVID-19 testing of Fresno Unified staffers will begin next week, moving the district an important step closer to reopening schools, Superintendent Bob Nelson said Monday afternoon in a news briefing.

Random testing is one of the requirements set by the state for districts to reopen schools to in-person instruction. The trustees approved an agreement with United Health Centers for COVID-19 testing at last Wednesday’s board meeting.

Staffers will be selected at random. Because testing is voluntary, the district is expanding the size of the random pool from 10% to 12% of on-campus staffers in case some decline the test, said Andrew De La Torre, the district’s executive director for benefits and risk management.

Nelson said he doesn’t expect many employees, if any, will refuse a random test.

“The idea here is making sure that we’re bringing kids back in the safest way possible. A lot of folks want to be COVID tested. So we don’t anticipate having a lot of turndowns,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who want to know what their current status is. We’re hoping that folks will consent, to help us keep things as safe as we possibly can.”

Don’t Wait for Random Test

But Nelson cautioned staffers who think they are showing symptoms of COVID-19 or might have been exposed to the coronavirus to get tested right away at one of the many testing sites in the region instead of trying to get a random test on campus. The goal of random testing is to be able to keep a handle on the presence of the coronavirus and stop it from spreading, he said.

Although not all employees are back on campus now, those numbers are continuing to grow as more teachers and other staffers return to classrooms, Nelson said.

Fresno Unified’s agreement with United Health Centers has come under some criticism because of the high cost — $150 per test — compared with other testing sites that are low-cost or free. Nelson said that the district had talks with a number of potential providers, but only United Health Centers was willing to step forward to take on the district’s sizable workforce.

Fresno Bee reporter Monica Velez said she reported that a district in Merced County is paying only $5 per test, prompting De La Torre to ask her for more information.  She said the low-cost testing is through a pilot program with the California Endowment, which is partnering with other school districts across the state.

Trustee Veva Islas then said that the district had an appointment later Monday with the California Endowment to talk about the low-cost testing program.

On-Campus Staff Growing

Fresno Unified resumed its in-person instruction of small groups on Monday at elementary and secondary schools across the district, Nelson said. In addition, some teachers are piloting “simulcasting,” where they teach some students who are with them in the classroom while teaching other students through the virtual online classroom.

And starting in about two weeks, another 400 or more teachers will be on campus on Mondays, and possibly additional days, to give in-person extra support to students, he said.

When the day comes that the county reaches the orange tier, all teachers will be expected to be back in their classrooms, no matter their vaccination status, Nelson said.

The state of California has asked counties to designate 10% of their vaccine allotment for school and child care workers starting March 1. Fresno Unified is in the process of developing a plan to give priority to those school staffers who are already working with students in person, Nelsons said.

Teachers who have the opportunity to be vaccinated but decline will not be allowed to continue teaching remotely once the risk of contagion has eased and the county moves into the orange tier, he said.

“We’re not going to compel people to cross the threshold of vaccination, but I think you would find and will find and we will realize that the vast majority of our people stand ready to do that and want to do it yesterday. The vast majority of feedback we’re getting is that it’s not happening soon enough, not that people are resisting vaccinations.”

As of Monday, however, Fresno Unified could not say how many teachers and other school staffers have been vaccinated thus far, whether through the Fresno County Public Health Department, a health care provider, or a pharmacy.

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