Rapid COVID-19 testing pilot study shows few positives in three school districts

There’s anticipation at the new Pioneer Elementary School in Gig Harbor, which hasn’t been felt for nearly a year. Soon, third through fifth-grade students will be able to go into classrooms for in-person learning. The Peninsula School District will welcome six through eighth-grade students to return Feb. 25th.

“It’s been an extremely long time. I want to get back to see my friends,” said third-grade student Parker Holmes, who said he had never been inside the new school before.

The Peninsula district is joining others like the White River district — where Gov. Jay Inslee toured classrooms on Tuesday — to reopen in-person learning, after taking guidance from a pilot study, where rapid antigen testing showed results in minutes. The study showed fewer than two positive cases among every thousand tested.

“I don’t think a lot of people want to be like the guinea pig, but the way they did that with the pilot study was a good way to do it,” said Mary Kay Hurt, a mother of a Pioneer Elementary fourth-grader

The pilot program — funded with $7.8 million from CARES Act funds, the government’s coronavirus relief bill — tested thousands of students, staff and parents at Peninsula, White River and Eatonville school districts. According to the study, there were 9,827 test cases taken. Out of all of those, only 19 were confirmed to be actually positive for COVID-19.

The pilot program could be a model for the rest of the state and the country.

Parents like Bridget Vandeventer told KIRO 7 the extra safety precautions on top of the testing are reassuring.

“The precautions, I mean, getting out the door to get them to school is not easy,” she said. “It’s like ‘Do you have your mask? Do you have a backup mask? Do you have a form signed?’”

When parents and teachers were asked in a follow-up survey whether the low testing numbers changed how they felt about the risk of COVID-19 in schools, the majority said no.

The survey showed 58% of faculty and 46% of parents said the testing did not change their existing beliefs about the risk of getting COVID-19 or reopening schools for in-person learning.

But across the narrow bridge, some parents believe there is the promise of traditional school, which they believe can be done everywhere safely, with help from science and extra safety precautions.

“Hopefully, the rest of the state takes a cue from Gig Harbor,” said Vandeventer. “We can do this. We can totally do this. It’s possible. And our kids need it. They deserve it.”