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How One District Built a Comprehensive COVID-19 Testing Program in a Month

As more schools are looking to add or expand COVID-19 testing as another layer of prevention from outbreaks, PHI's Safely Opening Schools has begun a pilot project in some California school districts that are moving to reopen with in-person classes. In Merced, the program is working with McSwain Union Elementary School District offering twice-weekly testing to all students and staff, providing valuable data and helping the schools open more safely.

  • K-12 Dive

McSwain Union Elementary School District in Merced, California, has been through about every COVID-19-era learning and teaching format available this school year: all-remote; only staff on campuses; and small student cohorts on buildings.

Just as the two-school, K-8 district got approval to invite all students back to campuses for face-to-face instruction in a hybrid format in late fall, a rise in community transmission rates threatened to force everyone back to remote learning.

At the same time, the state and the Merced County Department of Public Health were identifying school districts to pilot on-site rapid COVID-19 antigen testing programs under a program titled Safely Opening Schools (SOS). McSwain Union’s Superintendent Roy Mendiola, eager to keep his schools open, got the school board’s approval to participate in the pilot.

By mid-February, the school system had provided optional testing for all staff and began a pilot to test a small number of students. Mendiola said the startup work to implement a testing process in such a short time was “overwhelming,” but that the meetings, paperwork and planning have been worth the effort.

“There is a peace of mind that comes with our surveillance testing that is simply not possible with all of the other protocols that we have implemented,” Mendiola said in an email.

School districts across the country are looking to add or expand COVID-19 testing that could identify asymptomatic staff and students as another layer of prevention from widespread outbreaks in buildings. The continual process involves multiple partners, funding sources, access to tests, a well-thought-out and secure testing procedure, and lots of administrative time, say those experienced in the operations.

Lynn Silver
What the SOS program is doing is really developing clear and easy to follow methods for on site rapid screening that can complement masking and social distancing and other school measures and give families school staff and teachers greater confidence in the safety of in-person learning. We need to learn very quickly to make these type of tools available on a larger scale rapidly to help as many schools as possible to reopen more safely. Dr. Lynn Silver, Public Health Institute

It was just a few weeks before the winter break in December when Mendiola got a call from the state and county health departments about the COVID-19 SOS testing pilot, which leaders wanted to start on a small scale before the break. Mendiola said he was eager to have his district participate in order to shorten the time between when a person was suspected of having the virus and when test results were returned.

A quicker turnaround time for test results meant his schools could react more quickly with quarantining and contract tracing if there was a positive case, he said.

When Mendiola talked to the school board and staff about the potential for the pilot, he admitted he didn’t have many details but that the project seemed promising. “The fact that it was a pilot, I operated on a lot of a lot of faith that this was an important project and it was, you know, the right thing to do,” said Mendiola, who also consulted the district’s attorney about the pilot.

Mendiola worked with a team that included state and county health leaders, officials from the Public Health Institute who coordinated training and paperwork for the pilot, and Primary.Health, which managed the web-based platform for organizing testing logistics and information.

After email exchanges and many video conference calls, the team conducted a pre-pilot walkthrough that allowed people to use BinaxNOW rapid antigen tests to self swab their nasal passages and receive results in 15 minutes. The pre-pilot continued over the winter break, and about 25% of staff plus a few school board members elected to participate.

When schools reopened after the break, the district continued the pilot and made adjustments, such as the location of testing and correct handling of test kits, based on what organizers learned worked well. Mendiola would video conference with the pilot’s partners while walking through the different testing stations so health experts could offer feedback on best practices. Staff from other districts have also visited the McSwain Union testing site to learn about the process, he said.

Now, two months later, there is an 80% participation rate from staff who are offered the testing twice a week, and the district has begun a pilot testing program for students. Testing for students is optional with parental consent and is being planned for once a week, Mendiola said.

According to Dr. Lynn Silver, a program director at Public Health Institute, funding for the McSwain Union testing pilot was provided through federal stimulus funds and the California Endowment, a philanthropic nonprofit that aims to expand access to affordable, high-quality healthcare.

The test kits were pre-purchased last summer by the federal government from Abbott, the developer of BinaxNOW tests, and distributed to states. For rapid testing, the state supplies the test kits to schools for free, said Primary.Health’s Senior Vice President Sunshine Moore in an email. Primary.Health has multiple pricing models to accommodate budgets for large and small school districts, customizable for each district’s needs, Moore said.

Mendiola said he expects to test students and staff through the end of the school year at no expense to the district, aside from the staff time and personal protective equipment needed, such as gloves.

Silver said the pilot’s organizers — referred to as a learning collaborative — discovered a lot from McSwain Union’s early participation in the pilot, which includes nine other districts. “We’ve been developing the training materials for other districts based on learning from the first few sites,” Silver said.

The learning collaborative also has regular meetings where organizers and participant school districts share information and lessons learned. “Everybody’s learning from everybody’s experience together,” said Silver, adding that Public Health Institute is planning to make school-based COVID-19 training materials publicly accessible on its website.

One important message the organizers convey is testing programs should not give schools a false sense of security, and other COVID-19 mitigation efforts also need to be taken seriously even while COVID-19 testing is taking place.

Click below to read the full story in K-12 Dive.

Originally published by K-12 Dive


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