By noon on Sunday, traffic was backing up along Mosby Street at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School as Richmond Public Schools started handing out 8,000 at-home COVID-19 tests to parents of students and employees.
Similar traffic backups were reported at three other Richmond public schools that were giving out free test kits on Sunday, as thousands of parents and school employees turned out to pick up the packaged tests before the return to school from the holiday break.
“It’s mayhem,” said parent Ellie Burke, laughing, as she waited behind the wheel of her car in a queue of vehicles that snaked around from the back of the school out front to Mosby Street.
Burke quickly reversed her first, joking response.
“It’s not actually — I shouldn’t say that,” she said. “They are doing a really good job. Maybe some traffic control would have been helpful because of all the cars coming through.”
Burke was picking up tests for her two children, Kofi and Anoushea, who attend William Fox Elementary School.
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“We’ll test them ... just to make sure they are negative after some travel over the break and to make sure they are good to go [to school] and not spreading it to anyone else,” she said.
“I am worried about the omicron [COVID] surge, but I also feel that RPS is doing a great job with everything they can do to keep everyone safe,” she said. “I feel worried, but my kids are vaccinated too so I am not super-concerned about really difficult health conditions.”
The tests were offered to students of Richmond Public Schools as well as employees following the holiday break and as the school system prepares to implement a “test-to-stay” program meant to limit quarantine time for students and teachers.
Under the program, close contacts of people who have the virus could return to school sooner than the new five-day quarantine time set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by testing negative each day.
On Sunday, Richmond Public Schools ended up giving out all 8,000 of its tests it initially planned to give out, plus 2,000 extra that the vendor was able to provide given the demand, said Jason Kamras, superintendent of RPS.
“This is the largest event in the region to my knowledge, so we are doing everything we can,” Kamras said.
“For the test-to-stay program, we have another 25,000 tests that are being shipped to schools tomorrow,” Kamras said Sunday. “This [the Sunday distribution of tests] is more of a screen on the way into school, and then the test-to-stay is once you are in school.”
At-home tests also were given out at Henderson Middle School, Broad Rock Elementary School and Cardinal Elementary School. Employees of Test Here, a COVID testing company, handed out the test kits at drive-thru stations set up at the schools.
Even at 2:30 p.m., more than two hours after the tests started being handed out, traffic was backed up on Dorset Road and Ferguson Lane around Broad Rock Elementary School.
“It just goes to show the demand for [COVID tests] everywhere,” said Mike Damon, president of Damon Medical, a Richmond-based medical device products and supply company that contracts with Test Here and runs several testing COVID sites in Virginia. The company was helping manage the distribution of tests on Sunday.
“I think the test-to-stay approach is probably going to be one of the more reasonable approaches for schools to get students back safely and keep them in schools,” Damon said. “That is the goal — to keep students in school.”
Sharonda Samuels stopped at MLK to pick up tests for her son, who attends Bellevue Elementary School, and a niece and nephew who attend Henry Marsh Elementary.
She said she was a “little worried” about students returning to school after the holidays and during a surge of the omicron variant of the virus.
“Providing this extra step to get them tests is a plus,” Samuels said.
“I think it is just knowing,” she said. “We have been out and around family, and so this is just about knowing and being careful for not just my children but the other kids that will be around.”