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Health official: New Mexico children need more virus testing

Mimi, 8, greets her mother Dawn Lourenco after getting off a school bus on Friday in Albuquerque. Lourenco’s two other children were forced to learn remotely because of outbreaks in their schools. (Cedar Attanasio/Associated Press)

ALBUQUERQUE – More children in New Mexico are contracting COVID-19, and low testing rates in schools mean fewer cases are counted.

This week, health and education officials called for more testing of children. Some promised more testing options in the coming weeks.

School-aged children in the state are tested for COVID-19 at half the rate of adults. Fewer participate in routine testing. About 1 in 10 school-aged children test positive for the virus when they are tested, double the rate of adults.

Some schools have shut down temporarily this semester because of infections.

“In order to be confident that we’re really knowing what’s going on in schools we do need more testing,” said David Scrace, who heads New Mexico’s health and human services departments, on Wednesday.

Education officials have aspired for schools to test 25% of unvaccinated students each week.

Virtually no district is anywhere close to that, according to data released by the New Mexico Public Education Department from the spring semester through the end of last month.

Last week, the vast majority of districts received test results from 1% or fewer of their students, according to data reported by school districts to the education department.

Albuquerque Public Schools, which serves 1 in 5 New Mexico children, said it does not track voluntary student testing, and doesn’t collect testing data citing logistical challenges, said district spokeswoman Monica Armenta.

The district has focused instead on vaccine drives for students 12 and older who are eligible for the shots.

It’s likely an undercount, but children 17 years old and younger still account for around 20% of cases, according to the Department of Health. A similar portion was seen last spring when schools allowed in-person schooling again.

More testing means identifying more cases and sending home those who are infected as well as close contacts for about a week of observation. Online schooling for those children is even worse than it was last year because their classes are focused on in-person instruction.

“Which does not go well, she’s basically doing nothing,” said mother Dawn Lourenco who has a sixth grader in quarantine from The Public Academy for Performing Arts charter school. “Without me becoming the teacher, it’s hard to know what is expected.”

Lourenco supports programs and was one of the 8.6% of the school’s parents who answered the most recent call to test students without symptoms. She believes testing can help prevent shutdowns of entire schools, like that of her 15-year-old son.

He’s also in remote learning this week because a critical mass of staff members and students at his high school either tested positive or were close contacts.

Lourenco took her older daughter to a testing center near the staging grounds for Albuquerque’s annual hot air balloon festival.

“My daughter came back negative, but her carpool buddy came back positive,” said Lourenco, who works from home doing customer support for a packaging company. “That person got tested on (a) Tuesday morning and didn’t get the results until Friday night.”

Delays in testing results make it harder to get students and school staff members back in class when they’re listed as contacts of infected peers.

At a school board meeting in Santa Fe this week, school leaders said they’ve applied for approval from the Department of Health to operate a testing site on campus, hoping they can cut down delays in test results and offer convenient testing for students.

At the same meeting, the Santa Fe teachers union also recommended regular, mandatory testing of unvaccinated students.

The Department of Health says it will start offering on-site testing to some schools once per week, starting next week, Scrace said. The details are still being worked out.

Student testing will require parental permission forms, but schools say it will still help. Unvaccinated school staff members are already required to participate in weekly testing.

“We would certainly be interested in having a mobile testing unit set up to assist with our staff surveillance testing program,” said Rio Rancho district spokeswoman Melissa Perez.