Mar 10, 2021 - Health

Schools bet on pool testing to keep classrooms safe

Illustration of school desks, some of them cut out with nothing behind them.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

School districts across the U.S. are looking to add or expand frequent COVID-19 testing as a way to ensure in-person classes are safe.

Why it matters: Surveillance testing is uncommon overall, but is gaining a foothold in schools as local officials look to keep kids safe and reassure nervous staff and parents.

  • Routine surveillance testing can help make families and staff feel more comfortable with in-person instruction, said Jason Kelly, the CEO of Ginkgo Bioworks, a biotech company supplying tests to schools.
  • "Masks, ventilation, distancing is how you create a safe space and then regular testing is how you create confidence in your workers that you’ve done that," he said.

Where it stands: Atlanta Public Schools is investing $2 million in surveillance testing. Massachusetts is testing 300,000 students a week, ready to spend $5 million on tests.

  • Ginkgo has partnered with school districts in Massachusetts and Maryland to administer hundreds of thousands of PCR tests per week, at a cost of about $6 per student.
  • KIPP charter schools in Washington, D.C., are also using testing as part of their reopening plans.

Yes, but: Even with strong partnerships with the state and local health departments, smoothly running a large surveillance testing program takes a lot of staffing, funding and coordination.

  • School officials also need to spend time educating families and staff, said Donny Tiengtum, director of COVID support at KIPP DC.
  • "I often tell the staff and parents, routine testing does not prevent COVID from getting into our building," he said. "It is not gonna be a failsafe way to make sure no one gets COVID. It’s a way to help us identify as early as we can and hopefully be one of the mitigation efforts that prevents big spread in our building."

Go deeper: A worrying decline in COVID testing

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