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Supporting Safer School Reopening with Rapid COVID-19 Testing

Highlights

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, California schools urgently needed support for a return to in-person learning. From January through mid-July 2021, PHI’s Safely Opening Schools program showed that rapid, on-site COVID-19 testing was a feasible and effective way to support school reopening. With very low positivity rates found in ten high need school districts in five counties, SOS demonstrated that on-site testing could contribute to the safety of in-person learning and help build confidence in school safety for parents and staff.

27K rapid tests conducted at schools by the SOS program

90% of parents said that rapid testing helps them feel more confident about a return to in-person instruction

87% of parents said that rapid testing at school helps keep their family safe

With schools across California conducting remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, PHI’s Safely Opening Schools (SOS) aimed to support schools returning to in-person learning through the development of school-based, rapid COVID testing strategies. The program worked in collaboration with the California Department of Public Health to develop the training, data collection, test verification and other practices schools needed to return to on-site classes.

From January through mid-July 2021, SOS conducted more than 27,000 tests in ten high needs school districts in the counties of Los Angeles, Merced, Fresno, San Mateo, and Alameda. Coupled with state testing, data from more than 100,000 rapid tests at schools showed very low positivity rates: one tenth of one percent among those tested in high needs schools in the SOS program, and two tenths of one percent statewide.

The SOS findings demonstrated that on-site, rapid COVID-19 testing could contribute to the safety of in-person learning and help build confidence in school safety for parents and staff. In surveys of SOS parents, 90% said that rapid testing helps them feel more confident about a return to in-person instruction, and 87% said that rapid testing at school helps keep their family safe.

Lynn Silver
Rapid COVID-19 testing of unvaccinated staff and students at schools can act as an early warning system. When combined with masking and vaccination of all eligible staff and students, testing can prevent outbreaks and transmission back into the community as students return.

Dr. Lynn Silver, director, Safely Opening Schools

Teachers, staff and administrators at SOS schools were also reassured by the testing program. As Mary Piniol, a credentialed school nurse at Weaver Union school district in Merced County, one of the SOS pilot districts said, “Using rapid testing we detected 11 cases of COVID in our small district in three months, allowing us to send people home to isolate immediately before they could infect others. Testing made it safer for our staff and students to come back. We plan to continue testing at least until all of our children can be vaccinated.”

In summer of 2021, with younger children still ineligible for vaccination and with a surge in COVID-19 cases from the more transmissible Delta variant, California issued new school COVID guidelines emphasizing access to a robust COVID-19 testing program as an additional safety layer for in-person schooling. 

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