San Diego Unified has started voluntary COVID-19 testing for students and staff at several elementary schools, under a partnership with UC San Diego Health. The testing initiative is part of a broader district effort to keep students and staff safe while expanding in-person learning amid the worsening pandemic. The safe reopening strategy was developed in collaboration with some of the nation’s leading experts on infectious diseases at UC San Diego.
“The end of the COVID-19 crisis is now in sight with the development and delivery of a safe and effective vaccine, and that has given us all cause to hope. In the meantime, we are doing everything we can to continue operating safely despite the worsening infection rates in our community. That is why testing is essential,” Superintendent Cindy Marten said.
San Diego Unified collaborated with UC San Diego to establish strict health and safety reopening guidelines sandiegounified.org/UserFiles/Servers/Server_27732394/File/SDUSD_Scientific%20Panel%20Review_FINAL.pdf, which call for widespread COVID-19 testing. San Diego Unified’s testing plan was announced in November. The Board of Education voted to authorize an initial $5 million investment in the testing plan, which includes a joint laboratory services testing agreement with UC San Diego Medical Center. The board is poised to ratify that agreement at its meeting on Dec. 15. Eventually, the testing program could be expanded to include all 100,000 students within the district and its more than 10,000 staff members.
“Scientific models from our colleagues at UC San Diego show we can prevent 90 percent of all transmissions on campus with effective testing every two weeks,” Marten said. “That level of protection will not only help us reopen schools; it will help us keep them open, and avoid the back-and-forth, open-and-shut problems that have plagued other school systems.”
Free COVID-19 tests will be available to students and staff at 10 district elementary schools this week, with additional testing to be offered from Jan. 4 through Jan. 15. The goal is to test every student and staff member every two weeks, starting with those on campus for the first phase of school reopening. Campuses have been selected based on generally higher local case rates of community infections, combined with student and staff participation rates in appointment-based learning.
The tests will be administered in campus auditoriums and multi-purpose rooms by medical professionals from UC San Diego Health in conjunction with staff members from the district’s health office. Using PCR tests, the procedure takes about 15 seconds to swab both nostrils, and the swab itself is inserted roughly the same distance as a common nasal spray applicator.
“The science is clear when it comes to the importance of COVID-19 testing, even if a person has no symptoms. It is a critical component in slowing and containing the spread of COVID-19, along with measures like masking, social distancing, and proper hand hygiene,” said Patty Maysent, CEO of UC San Diego Health. “Swabbing a mouth or a nose is quick and easy. And it can ultimately help save lives.”
Test results will be available approximately 24 hours following the test. Individuals who test positive will receive a phone call from a UC San Diego health professional and follow up from district nursing staff. Results can be accessed through UC San Diego My Chart. Students and staff members who test negative may get retested every two weeks. Those who test positive for COVID-19 would not be re-tested for 90 days
“The implementation of COVID-19 testing is an important tool for district campuses in identifying and limiting the spread of the coronavirus,” district physician Dr. Howard Taras said. “Although voluntary, I strongly urge student and staff participation in the testing program for their health and the health of others.”
“Even after the vaccine rolls out this winter, I anticipate that testing will remain an important tool for schools. I do not anticipate that school-age children will be offered the vaccine for many months after the vaccine is available to adults,” Taras said. “There is very little research on the effectiveness of this vaccine on children under 12. And while we are hopeful that it will be just as effective in younger age groups as it is in adults, vigilance about reducing the numbers of potentially positive and infectious children on our campuses via testing will remain an important precaution for many months after staff members are vaccinated.”