San Diego Unified begins coronavirus testing in some elementary schools

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is seen isolated from a patient.
(National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

The San Diego Unified School District has started voluntary coronavirus testing for students and staff at several elementary
schools under a partnership with UC San Diego Health, according to an announcement Dec. 15.

Eventually, the testing program could be expanded to include all 100,000 students in the district and its more than 10,000 staff members.

Free tests for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 will be available to students and staff members at 10 campuses this week — Rolando Park, Penn, Foster, Gage, Mason, Vista Grande, Dingeman, Jerabek, Hearst and Benchley Weinberger elementary schools — with additional testing to be offered Jan. 4-15.

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, which consists of limited in-person support sessions for students who are struggling academically and those with disabilities who have high needs.

The district has delayed plans to reopen in-person instruction to all students, citing the area’s surge in coronavirus cases.

“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,” said SDUSD Superintendent Cindy Marten. “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.”

District physician Dr. Howard Taras said: “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.

“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.

“Although voluntary, I strongly urge student and staff participation in the testing program for their health and the health of others.”

San Diego Unified’s testing plan was announced in November, and the school board voted then to authorize an initial $5 million investment in the plan, which includes a joint laboratory services testing agreement with UCSD Medical Center.

“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.”

The campuses were selected based on generally higher local rates of community infections, combined with student and staff participation rates in appointment-based learning.

The tests are to be administered in campus auditoriums and multipurpose rooms by medical professionals from UCSD Health in conjunction with staff members from the district’s health office. The procedure, which takes about 15 seconds, involves swabbing both nostrils. The swab is inserted roughly as deep 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,” said Patty Maysent, chief executive of UC San Diego Health. “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. Swabbing a mouth or a nose is quick and easy. And it can ultimately help save lives.”

Test results will be available in about 24 hours. Those who test positive will receive a phone call from a UCSD health professional and follow-up from district nursing staff. Results will 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 will not be retested for 90 days.

— PB Monthly staff contributed to this report.