COVID-19 pandemic

Tardy Tests: K-12 testing delay keeps teacher out of work

Natalie Andrus Fleming is a school psychologist based at the Asa Messer Elementary school in Providence. On Wednesday, September 16, the third day after schools partially reopened in Providence, one of two cities in RI that were not approved for full in-person reopening due to high COVID-19 rates, Fleming said she was directed to stop coming to work and to self-quarantine. “I have allergies and routinely get a sinus infection at the start of every year… I was sneezing, had congestion and a headache so my school nurse told me I had to get tested as those are also symptoms of COVID. She was under the impression that it was a rapid test and I would be back the next day,” Fleming told Motif.

RI is the only state that set up a completely separate parallel testing system for K-12 students, teachers and staff. In a statement on September 15, RI Gov. Gina Raimondo said, “To stay ahead of the virus and keep students, teachers and other school employees safe, we’ve geared up to provide an additional 5,000 tests every day specifically for our school community. If you work at a school and you need a test, or if your child needs a test, you can schedule a same-day test by calling our dedicated Pre-K-12 COVID Test Scheduling Service at 844-857-1814. The service is available seven days a week, from 7:30am to 9:30pm. This scheduling line is reserved for students, teachers and staff who have symptoms, or who have been in close contact [with] someone who is positive.”

Fleming called the hotline and scheduled a same day test, and she went for sample collection (by swab) at 1pm on September 16, the same day the school nurse told her to get tested, at the Pastore Center site in Cranston. She said she had some difficulty locating the testing facility due to lack of signage, but eventually sample collection took place without a problem. Per protocol for someone who displays symptoms, Fleming’s samples were submitted for both a rapid antigen test and a laboratory PCR test. She received the rapid antigen test results by 7:30pm, but because that type of test is less accurate than the laboratory PCR test and is more prone to false negatives, she was still not permitted to return to work until her laboratory PCR test results were in, which the state is committed to turning around in at most 48 hours.

By Sunday, September 20, Fleming was still looking for her laboratory test results and had been out of work for three days. On Monday morning she told Motif, “I called the hotline yesterday (Sunday) as I still had no results and cannot go back to school…” The woman who answered the hotline, according to Fleming, “indicated that labs are backed up and it could take another 24-48 hours but also could not confirm a definite timeline for when I would receive them and be able to get back to school.” Fleming said, “The woman I spoke to said she checked the portal” and saw the laboratory PCR test result had not yet been entered, apparently referring to the database maintained by Dominion Diagnostics, the laboratory based in North Kingstown tapped by the state to provide local testing services.

With Fleming’s permission, Motif contacted the RI Department of Health (DoH) about the delay. Joseph Wendelken, spokesman for DoH, said there is no backlog of testing and that “PCR test results are becoming available in roughly 48 hours.” With regard to Fleming specifically, Wendelken said her test was completed Friday, September 18, and should have been available to her in their portal at that time. He speculated that there might have been miscommunication.

Screenshot of e-mail to Natalie Fleming from RI Department of Health, sent 2:00pm Mon, Sep 21.

Five days after sample collection but only hours after the exchange between Motif and Wendelken, Fleming reported receiving an e-mail message time-stamped as sent at 2pm on Monday, September 21, directing her to establish an account with the portal to obtain her results. Motif followed-up with Wendelken: “That seems inconsistent with her results being completed Friday. Are you sure?” As of Wednesday, September 23, DoH has not replied.

Fleming confirmed her laboratory test was also negative, but by that time she had missed four days of school waiting for test results.