FILE - PA Sec of Health Alison Beam 8-16-2021

Acting Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Alison Beam discusses a new vaccine and COVID-19 testing initiative for public schools during a news conference Aug. 16, 2021.

(The Center Square) – Public schools and universities in Pennsylvania will become the latest sites for vaccine clinics and mass testing in a new initiative launched by state health officials this week.

Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam signed an order effective Monday that requires vaccine providers to host immunizations clinics for students, teachers, staff and families at local schools upon request.

Schools and colleges can also participate in weekly “pooled” testing to detect cases of COVID-19 sooner and prevent shutdowns and quarantines that keep students out of the classroom.

Both initiatives will receive funding through federal grants designed to keep public schools operational in the upcoming academic year, especially as children under the age of 12 remain ineligible for the vaccine, Beam said.

“It is imperative that students, educators, and staff who feel they need or want a test, especially if they think they have been exposed to COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms, have access to free COVID-19 testing,” she said. “In addition to getting vaccinated, this testing initiative is another tool in our toolbox for schools to keep ‘Friday night lights’ shining brightly this year.”

Concentric by Ginkgo Bioworks will offer both mid-nasal swab and saliva-based polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests to students who volunteer for weekly screening with a turnaround time of 48 hours or less.

Through the use of pooled testing, results won't be released the Department of Health for individual students, but rather offer a broader picture of how prevalent COVID-19 is in a classroom or throughout a school building. The $87 million federally-backed endeavor will continue throughout the year, Beam said. 

“We built Concentric because everyone’s health is connected and we’re proud to work with school districts across Pennsylvania to support comprehensive testing within school communities,” said Matthew McKnight, chief commercial officer at Ginkgo. 

He added that asymptomatic testing provides critical information to decision-makers tasked with keeping schools safe and operational. The company has implemented similar programs in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Arizona and North Carolina. 

“Each of us at Concentric is committed to supporting communities as they work to keep kids in classrooms and COVID out this fall,” McKnight said. 

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona applauded the initiatives during a news conference Monday in which he recognized Pennsylvania as a leader in school mitigation strategies.

“Pennsylvania, you’re leading the pack in intentional collaboration and ensuring that we do everything in our power to safely open schools,” he said. “We know that if we can vaccinate those who are 12 and older as soon as possible, it’s more likely that students can have in person instruction uninterrupted."

The announcement comes as local school districts grapple with reopening plans that balance federal guidance with concerns from parents who remain leery of masking mandates for unvaccinated children.

Beam reiterated the state has no plans to reinstate a universal masking policy statewide. 

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.