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In hopes of quickly catching outbreaks, SCS plans to offer COVID-19 testing

Commercial Appeal Memphis logo Commercial Appeal Memphis 3/4/2021 Laura Testino, Memphis Commercial Appeal
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After returning to buildings earlier this week, Shelby County Schools students, teachers and staff could begin receiving COVID-19 testing in school by the end of the month. 

The district presented a two-year plan for the testing to board members Saturday, suggesting that testing would take place optionally and once every two weeks. 

"Every couple of weeks, every student, every teacher in a school, who wants to have a test can have a test," explained John Barker, the district's deputy superintendent over operations. 

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While other public school districts in Shelby County have not implemented testing, more than three dozen schools in Memphis have been testing students and staff for COVID-19 through an assurance testing program with the city of Memphis. 

a person standing in a kitchen preparing food: Lab technician Zenobia Neal sets up for a COVID-19 test Thursday, July 23, 2020, at Poplar Healthcare in Memphis. © Max Gersh / The Commercial Appeal Lab technician Zenobia Neal sets up for a COVID-19 test Thursday, July 23, 2020, at Poplar Healthcare in Memphis.

The testing method, called pooled testing, is implemented in schools and other workplaces in the city. While each person is swabbed, the pool method tests multiple swabs together.

$224 million: How SCS might spend second stimulus funding

While some teachers have been vaccinated and all are eligible, the Food and Drug Administration has not yet authorized a vaccine for children. Trials, though, are underway, and those vaccines may be authorized for use later this year.

Either way, experts still recommend people who are vaccinated to mask and social distance. Though some preliminary research is promising, it is possible that vaccinated people could still transmit the virus, even if they don't become infected. 

How pool testing works

Dr. Manoj Jain, an infectious disease physician who has been advising local leaders throughout the pandemic, helped create the testing program, also called assurance testing, using what he learned from days working with the World Health Organization, he said in a fall interview

He said about half of the kids at any given school were volunteering to be tested at the time. Patterns in results show that positive tests were occurring in batches, but that the testing could catch the cases before students developed symptoms, if they ever did. 

"And then those individuals (who) are positive, we can isolate them, and prevent the entire school to have to close down," Jain said last fall. 

He described testing as an added strategy to use alongside masking, distancing and hand washing. The latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also acknowledged as much, with differentiated guidelines for schools and districts that have an assurance testing program in place. 

"When they do this as an added strategy to continue in-person schooling, and it's shown to be effective across the nation...we should definitely utilize it given the capacity that we have here," Jain said late last year. "And that's where I would really encourage the schools to use this as a tool."

Where the funding comes from

In August, when the city announced its pooled testing program, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said the program was developed with SCS in mind. 

Pool testing: Memphis launches new strategy for widespread testing at schools

Later in the fall, when Superintendent Joris Ray announced intentions to reopen buildings in the new year, Ray said optional COVID-19 testing would be part of the district's plans to return to classrooms.

At that point, Strickland said the city support for the testing would be contingent on federal stimulus funding expected to come at the end of the year. Although the city did not receive any funding, it kept the pool testing program going, and would be able to support SCS for the spring semester, spokesperson Dan Springer said in January. 

As the district presented its testing plan to board members and the city took over vaccine distribution from the county health department, Strickland said in a statement Monday that the district would need to fund its testing. 

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"Shelby County Schools received roughly $224M in CARES Act funds. The City of Memphis received $113M. Recently, SCS presented a plan for testing to their board using their own team and their own money. This information was also shared with the City," Strickland said in the statement. "Last week, we took on the responsibility for vaccinations for all of Shelby County. Moving forward, this is our focus." 

The charter schools that are receiving funds for pooled testing from the city committed to the program prior to the city taking custody of vaccinations, Springer said. 

When the city announced the testing program last fall, Strickland said public charter schools in would be eligible to use the program for free. Private schools could have logistics assistance from the city, he said, but would be asked to pay for the tests themselves. The city planned to add schools on a first-come, first-serve basis until capacity was reached. 

It is not immediately clear how many charter schools in the program are under SCS management and how many are under the Achievement School District, managed by the state.

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SCS plans to set aside $6 million over the next two years for COVID-19 testing, and could piggyback on the city's contract for the program, Barker told board members Saturday. He said the district preferred the pool testing method to rapid tests because the pooled PCR tests are generally more sensitive to identifying virus than rapid test technology.

The $6 million will come from the $170 million the district has to spend in federal funding by mid-2023. The remainder of its $224 million allocation is going to charter schools ($40.2 million) and indirect costs ($23.8 million), such as salaries for district employees who work on federal spending and compliance, officials explained.

The district may consider prioritizing testing for populations that bear "a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 cases or severe disease," according to materials presented to the board. That could include schools with "moderate or large proportions of racial and ethnic groups that have experienced higher rates of COVID-19 cases relative to population size" or schools in geographic areas with limited availability to testing. 

Laura Testino covers education and children's issues for the Commercial Appeal. Reach her at laura.testino@commercialappeal.com or 901-512-3763. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: In hopes of quickly catching outbreaks, SCS plans to offer COVID-19 testing

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