School districts rolling out new COVID-19 testing strategies

SEATTLE — Families across Western Washington will be seeing a lot more COVID-19 testing in schools as school districts roll out new strategies to try to keep students in the classroom.

“I think it’s great,” parent Erin Walker said. “The more information we have, the better informed we are.”

Walker, a mother of two boys in the Bellevue School District, works in environmental health and safety. So it may be no surprise that she supports the district rolling out pooled screening, also known as surveillance screening or batch testing, to identify new COVID-19 cases.

“Burying our heads in the sand is not a strategy,” she said.

Pooled surveillance is similar to normal testing, in that a person’s nose is swabbed and the swab is placed into a tube. But the tube is quite a bit larger; five to 25 people’s swabs go inside each one.

“We’re testing asymptomatic people,” Heather Edlund, BSD’s executive director of teaching and learning, said. “People you don’t suspect to have COVID.”

Edlund said students at different schools will swab their own noses on different days of the week.

“If you do get a positive result, what happens next?” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon asked.

“Right now, we’re asking families to isolate if they’re in the positive pool,” Edlund said. “Each of those individuals would come in for an individual diagnostic test in order to identify who the positive person is in that pool.”

Edlund said the results have about a 12-hour turnaround.

“If we test kids in the morning, we get the results that evening,” she said.

But Edlund said so far, only about 30% of families have opted in to the testing.

“I think that people are really hesitant to do something that might take their kid out of school for even one day,” she said.

Seattle Public Schools is rolling out something different.

“We’re in active conversations right now to implement a strategy for Test to Stay,” Dr. Carrie Nicholson, SPS’s interim director of health policy, practices, and procedures, said.

Test to Stay is a modified quarantine for close contacts of a student with a confirmed COVID-19 case.

“They would remain in school and we would do testing — at least two tests at this interval, prescribed interval time,” she said. “It would allow them to remain in in-person learning … really, our strategy and our goal right now is to reduce the loss of in-person learning time.”

“Do you have a timeline?” Sheldon asked.

“Hopefully before early December,” Nicholson said. “I mean, we’re still in early conversations but we’re getting really, really close. So it is a high priority.”

SPS told KIRO 7 on Wednesday that there is a delay.

A spokesperson with the Washington State Department of Health said it is working on a contract to provide SPS with the resources it needs. That contract work is expected to be done by the end of the month.

As in Bellevue’s weekly screening, families will need to opt in.

And SPS said it’s considering a screening program, too, in addition to Test to Stay.

“We are in negotiations with our labor partners about that,” Nicholson said.

So what’s your child’s school doing?

KIRO 7 looked at some of the largest districts in our area. It’s mixed when it comes to Test to Stay; the Lake Washington, Puyallup, Federal Way, and Tacoma school districts are exploring it, have it, or are in the process of rolling it out. For screening, the Northshore School District and Bellevue are the only ones to offer it currently.

The Northshore School District’s testing vendor is CIC Health, whereas Bellevue is working with Atlas Genomics.

Both screening testing and Test to Stay are encouraging to Seattle parents Aaron and Kathleen Olson.

“I think it’s a part of a really good plan,” Kathleen Olson said.

But the biggest part for them will be their 8-year-old daughters finally getting fully vaccinated.

“Once they’re vaccinated, that’s going to be the last piece of the puzzle for us to feel comfortable enough to go back,” Aaron Olson said.

“How big is vaccination for your two children?” Sheldon asked Erin Walker.

“It’s huge,” Walker said.

Her teenager, Carson, is already vaccinated and Rex is in the process.

She’ll be opting in for screening and hopes the district will get the word out.

“That testing to know that we have a positive case and that we can isolate it and not have it spread through the community — I think would be ideal,” Walker said.