LASD rolls out COVID-19 pool testing for sixth-graders

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Zoe Morgan/Town Crier
Goretti Furtado, left, a member of the Los Altos School District’s health services team, collects a nasal swab from a student last week.

The Los Altos School District is rolling out weekly, pooled COVID-19 testing for sixth-graders in an effort to identify any potential outbreaks on school campuses.

Last week, LASD began a program where sixth-graders have the opportunity to be tested for COVID-19 every week. The district is using “pool” tests, where each classroom group’s swabs are tested collectively.

“I think this is a very promising resource that we’ve implemented,” Superintendent Jeff Baier said. “We hope it does give us even greater insight into what is, or is not, going on within our student groups that have returned to school.”

None of the pool tests came back positive for COVID-19 in the first week of testing, Baier confirmed.

The pooled result for a class will come back positive if anyone’s individual sample is positive for the coronavirus. If the test for a class does return positive, the full classroom cohort would be sent home to quarantine for 10 days.

“Even though we don’t know which student is positive (with pool testing), it has the same outcome for the classroom,” said district nurse Mary Fitzgerald.

Classes would run virtually during the 10-day quarantine period, and families would be advised to get their children tested individually to find out if they have the virus.

Testing sixth-graders is costing the district roughly $4,200 per week. Each pool test, representing one cohort of students, is $150. Every classroom is split into two cohorts, each coming to school part-time to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

The district has been bringing students back to campus sequentially by grade level, and sixth-graders are the most recent group to return, beginning in-person classes Jan. 21. The district decided to pilot pool testing with sixth-graders, so it could be part of their routine from the beginning, Baier said. He added that the program may expand to additional grades in the future.

Efficient use of resources

LASD had originally intended to introduce pool testing for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, who were all scheduled to return to campus in January. However, the junior high schools’ reopening has been indefinitely postponed due to a mid-January change in state guidance. Sixth-graders have still been able to return, because they are part of the elementary schools, which were already open for younger grades.

Baier announced the decision to begin pool testing students, along with other safety measures, after negotiations with the teachers’ union, which had called for stopping in-person classes altogether. Although the announcement came after union negotiations, Baier said plans for pool testing had already been in the works.

In addition to pool testing, the district has an existing partnership with El Camino Health to offer individual tests for students and staff, administered weekly on certain school campuses.

The aim is for pool tests to reach a greater percentage of students in a given grade than were participating in the individual tests, Baier said. Roughly 100 students across all grade levels participated in the individual tests last week.

In the first week of pool testing, 214, or 68%, of sixth-graders participated. Fitzgerald said she expects more will join as time goes on.

Unlike individual tests, where parents must bring their children to the testing site, for pool tests, once parents sign a consent form, district health staff will come to classrooms each week to conduct the tests.

The process itself is relatively simple. Students self-administer a nasal swab while standing spaced apart outside their classroom. The swabs from all the students in a classroom group are then collected in a single tube and mailed overnight for processing. The district is supposed to receive the results of the test within 36 to 48 hours of its receipt.

By testing weekly and getting results within roughly two days, Fitzgerald said the district hopes to catch COVID-19 cases sooner and also find potentially asymptomatic ones, where a student might not otherwise realize he or she is infected.

“Instead of running 10 separate tests, we’re running one test,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a little bit more efficient use of resources.”

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