The county has begun a targeted in-school testing program in...

The county has begun a targeted in-school testing program in the Hampton Bays district, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said on Thursday. Credit: Randee Daddona

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced Thursday a county effort to test students in schools for COVID-19 in two communities where cases are escalating.

The pilot program, the first in the county, began Thursday in Hampton Bays, where 400 rapid test kits were offered for students, teachers and staff. It begins Friday in Riverhead.

"Our goal today is to be proactive and get control of the virus," Bellone said in a news conference.

The 5-day rolling average positivity rate stands at 6.5% in Hampton Bays and 5.6% in Riverhead, he said. Countywide, that rate has fluctuated between 3% and 4%.

"The second wave seems to be here," Bellone said.

Christine Tona, interim superintendent of the Riverhead Central School District, said the county had reached out to the districts to get a clearer sense of community positivity rates by testing asymptomatic people at random in schools.

She said it was thought that high positivity rates in Riverhead were largely due to symptomatic people seeking tests in the community.

The hope is that random testing would produce lower overall positivity rates and avoid the requirement to close schools and businesses.

The random testing would "be a true indication of what the infection rate is," she told parents in a Zoom session Thursday in which she asked them to consider allowing their children to undergo the rapid result nasal swab tests.

She anticipated the county would conduct more than 100 tests daily on Friday, Monday and Tuesday at the high school and at an elementary school and determine whether to continue testing based on the results. Riverhead schools have reported about three dozen positive cases in the district, with three schools currently closed temporarily. County testing began Thursday in Hampton Bays, where 23 cases have occurred since October 23.

Elsewhere, district superintendents have asked parents to return surveys indicating willingness to have children tested if their communities are designated a micro-cluster zone by New York State. Zones are graded yellow, orange or red based on ascending rates of COVID-19 positivity.

Under state guidelines, a district in a yellow zone can stay open if test results from 20% of the school community, taken over a two-week period, are lower than the community rate. If they are higher, testing must continue.

In red and orange zones, schools must close in-person instruction but can reopen if 100% of students, faculty and staff test negative.

Huntington school Superintendent James W. Polansky said that while there was no evidence of spread within district schools, rising regional rates posed a "significant threat."

He wrote in a message to parents, "The NYS Department of Health has suggested that they will be supplying County health departments with ample test kits, but availability and delivery under the current statewide circumstances remain a question."

He said in an interview that the state and county are "working in tandem," but districts as yet lacked details on where testing would take place and who would do the testing.

At his news conference, Bellone did not commit to paying for district testing costs outside of its school-based programs, saying the county would do whatever it can do.

In Nassau County, residents can get free testing at two locations, in Lawrence and in the Great Neck/Manhasset area, said Vicki DeStefano, a county spokesperson.

But some district superintendents were confused about who would wind up paying for the tests if they were suddenly deemed necessary to schools remaining open.

Ann Pedersen, superintendent in Lawrence -- which so far is the only Island district to close schools due to being located in an orange or yellow zone -- said district parents paid for testing, while free testing was available at nearby county testing sites.

She noted that the district had to reach out to up to 35% of parents to obtain consent from 20% for testing, as parents were afraid to have young children tested.

Lorna Lewis, superintendent in the Malverne school district, however, was alarmed at the prospect of added costs and concerned about testing capacity if the entire county was deemed a micro-cluster.

"We don’t have a comprehensive plan in Nassau County to accommodate the numbers that would be required to test across the board," Lewis said. With demand already high, she said, the district has already hired a mobile testing unit to test for COVID-19 before and after Thanksgiving break. And, she said, she was told by the county health department that while testing kits could be provided if the area was designated a micro-cluster, test analysis would cost $80 a test.

"Nobody built a budget for this," she said. "Nobody went into the 2020-2021 school year with a budget line that said COVID."

Christine Geed, director of communications for Nassau County, said "We will continue to, as we do now, work with the state to make sure our school communities have access to testing, whether it be through county-run testing sites, state-run testing sites or public testing sites at local hospitals, pharmacies, [or] doctors’ offices."

With Craig Schneider and Lisa L. Colangelo

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