Austria is seeking something different to reopen its schools. After months of battling SARS-CoV-2, the government is asking students to test themselves twice a week before they can attend class. The country could become an example for the U.S., where many schools remain closed.
Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged elementary and secondary schools to reopen in the wake of a debate about how they could function amid the pandemic. School reopenings have also been prioritized by European governments, but the continent’s slow introduction of vaccines and the spread of highly infectious coronavirus variants mean that there are major risks.
Austria is taking this a step further, where testing numbers have been reaching an all-time high after recent PCR and antigen tests were expected to book a hair appointment. According to Die Presse, 1,522,739 antigen and PCR tests were carried out last Sunday. To allow people to access services, the government aims to meet a goal of up to 3.5 million tests per week with a combination of PCR and antigen tests. From March 1, up to five “living-room” antigen tests will be assigned to each person, which only require a shallow swab of the nasal cavity and can be performed at home. There will also be increased testing at schools and businesses. So far, 787 pharmacies and 730 companies are taking part in the free test campaign.
Schools have reopened this month after almost three months of distance learning. Initially, the reopening schedule will require all students to test once a week on Monday. This will later be raised to twice a week. Children will be able to collect their sample by turning a swab in their noses before inserting it into a cartridge, dropping a few drops of liquid on it and waiting for the result for 15 minutes. It is supposed to be “as easy as picking your nose”. To date, the Austrian government has ordered 24 million tests of this type from a Chinese manufacturer for what is equivalent to $2.90 each. Children in primary schools will be able to take the test home so that a parent can administer it. Older students will perform the test at school. Children with parents who refuse to participate in the mass-testing will have to continue remote learning. It is projected that a record of about 2.2 million tests will be administered in schools every week.
In European schools, safety initiatives have varied widely, similar to the U.S., including increased hand-washing, staggered arrival and recess times, separate classes and compulsory mask-wearing, often only in hallways, sometimes everywhere. Austria has implemented a ‘triple safety net’ composed of three steps to cut infection risks in order to mitigate infections. This entails wearing N95 masks for children from the age of 14, performing routine testing and organizing classes and lessons in two shifts, where half of the students going to school on Monday and half of the students coming to school on Tuesday.
Compared to laboratory PCR tests, which are highly accurate but require more time to generate a result, antigen tests have often been criticized for their lower sensitivity. Yet, researchers say there is increasing evidence that repeated antigen testing can help distinguish the most contagious cases within large groups and help contain contamination.
Last week, 364 children and 172 teachers were positive out of 1.3 million tests across Austria. The low rate may be because the children were coming out of a months-long lockdown, but some scientists suggested the possibility that children were not correctly collecting samples.
Nonetheless, parents and students should not be fooled into a false sense of safety by negative tests. they only offer a snapshot of the infectiousness of a person on a given day. Other safety measures, such as mask-wearing and self-distancing, should continue to be mandatory.