Some school districts turn to voluntary COVID-19 testing to keep buildings open

Sophie Grosserode
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

When the pandemic began, keeping schools safe meant closing them. Then it meant social distanced desks and masked teachers, contact tracing and, when necessary, going all-remote.

The next frontier of school safety could be COVID-19 testing – not only mandated testing when a community's case numbers rise, but voluntary, ongoing surveillance testing of large numbers of students and staff.

Some districts see such testing as a way to limit staff and student quarantines and to keep schools open, at least until vaccines are widely distributed.

A nasal swab is prepared for testing results at a COVID-19 testing site in the parking garage at the Palisades Center Mall Nov. 30, 2020.

“I have, for several months, [investigated] the possibility of widespread testing, to be more proactive,” said Mamaroneck Superintendent Robert Shaps. “We've been in this reactive mode, just trying to keep schools open despite the positive cases in our schools.”

The Mamaroneck school district conducted a voluntary “test-in” program after winter break that took a lot of planning and swift execution.

The district ultimately processed almost 5,000 COVID-19 tests from students and staff last week, getting close to 90% participation. The district got consent from parents before winter break, and school nurses and social workers reached out personally to families on the fence.

The district got saliva tests came from Mirimus Inc., a Brooklyn-based laboratory. Families picked up test kits from district buildings last Wednesday, during a week of remote learning. They returned them on Thursday and Friday before staff transported the kits to Brooklyn for processing.

Results were in before Mamaroneck’s hybrid program resumed on Monday.

The effort cost $70,000 and involved the work of about 50 staff members, Shaps said. The district did receive a “sizable” private donation that helped with the cost.

“My feeling is, we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on PPE, on technology, on health and safety resources,” Shaps said. “We felt this was important enough to find the funds.”

A student takes his temperature on the first day of hybrid school at Edward Williams School in Mount Vernon Nov. 16, 2020. The district began its three phase re-opening with pre-kindergarten to third-grade classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The goal is to identify those with the virus, limit its spread and cut down on the need for quarantines and school closures.

After Thanksgiving, when many communities saw the virus spread, the Mamaroneck district reported 48 COVID-19 cases in 24 days, Shaps said.

Last week, about 30 students tested as part of the new program were positive. If those students had attended school before showing symptoms, Shaps said, it could have meant countless other students and staff needing a 10-day quarantine. 

“We are one of the communities that have reported well over 100 [cases], since we've had to report daily,” Shaps said. “It was clear to me that, short of investing in this, we were most likely going to have to transition to full remote for an extended period of time.” 

Mamaroneck's testing program could be the largest by a school district in the region so far, but other districts are also turning to testing to keep school doors open.

The Ossining district has also begun providing opportunities for families to have children tested. Testing was offered in the high school gymnasium on Monday for the school community, and 322 rapid tests were processed. Last week, 230 tests were taken. Testing is also being done by the Open Door Family Medical Center, which operates school health clinics in Ossining.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Nov. 30, 2020, detailed the state's winter COVID plan that calls for increases in testing.

Kits were provided by the state Health Department, with no costs to the district, Superintendent Ray Sanchez said. This was Ossining’s second experience with testing, but the first was required. The district tested 850 students and staff in early December after falling into a state-imposed yellow zone.

“We had to do it, initially,” Sanchez said. “Now we're working to do it in a systematic way, proactively.”

Both Mamaroneck and Ossining hope to do more voluntary testing in the future, and other districts are trying the same strategy to keep schools open. 

The Pawling and Beacon school districts in Dutchess County have reported plans for community surveillance testing, using Department of Health test kits. Albany schools began voluntary testing “as a precautionary measure due to the surge in COVID-19 cases since the holiday break,” according to a tweet.

Many superintendents are hoping for state support to make testing as a safety measure more accessible, Shaps said. He pointed to Massachusetts, where Gov. Charlie Baker recently announced a state-sponsored pool testing program in schools to monitor the spread of COVID-19. 

“My fellow superintendents in the region, we all believe that the state should provide all districts with the means to test regularly,” he said. “Short of a testing program on a regular basis, it's going to be an uphill battle to stay open ... it's been a day-to-day challenge of quarantining staff and students.”

Another benefit of testing, Sanchez said, is that it can bring “peace of mind” to parents and staff, reassuring them that a district is doing everything possible to make school safe. 

School districts' definition of what's possible has expanded as the pandemic wears on. Six months ago, many school leaders were insistent that school districts had no capacity for testing. Now, some are forming partnerships with labs and administering nasal swabs in buildings, whatever it takes to keep the doors open. 

“It just speaks to how school districts are pivoting in this COVID world,” Sanchez said. “We're all changing, not only our instructional delivery, but everything else that we need to do, whether it's food service, now testing or anything else.”

Sophie Grosserode covers education. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @sdgrosserode.