Coastside schools are set to offer pooled COVID-19 testing to all students who sign up starting this month.

Pooled testing uses the same PCR technology as a normal COVID-19 test, but combines multiple test swabs to determine if anyone in the group is positive for COVID-19. It is generally cheaper and quicker to process than individual tests, making it attractive for districts that will be testing thousands of staff and students each week.

Cabrillo Unified School District is set to implement the pooled testing program, Director of Educational Support Services Martha Ladd wrote in an email to the Review. The district chose the pooled method, Ladd wrote, to cut down on interference with classroom instructional time. Ladd said at last week’s school board meeting that with materials already on their way, Coastside schools hope to start their pooled testing the week of Sept. 20.

Each of the programs requires families to opt in. Ladd said those students who opt out will likely be required to quarantine, rather than stay at school, if they are found to be in close contact with a COVID-19 case and aren’t showing symptoms. In a note to the school community, Pacifica School District Superintendent Heather Olsen wrote that she encourages students to participate to help the school be informed as it continues to make safety decisions.

“We strongly encourage your child’s participation, as knowing the pooled testing results will serve as an amazing tool in our ability to ensure safety,” Olsen wrote. “Ultimately, testing empowers us to make these informed decisions about in-person learning and allows students, teachers, and staff to come to school with peace of mind.”

Pacifica School District began its pooled testing last week, asking families to sign up their kids to be part of a 25-student cohort that will be tested collectively for COVID-19 once per week. If a positive result in any pool is detected, the entire pool will be retested using individual rapid antigen tests.

Jefferson Union High School District is working to finalize its own program soon, with the goal of having testing operational by Sept. 27, COVID Response Director Michele Jones said.

By Oct. 15, twice-weekly testing for unvaccinated staff at the two districts will also be up and running in accordance with California Department of Public Health guidelines. Jones said JUHSD has yet to settle on using the pooled testing strategy versus testing everyone individually each week. She said, with the program fully funded by the state either way, it will come down to staffing availability to oversee and coordinate the weekly testing.

“Even though the state will pay for it, we would have to hire and train and pay for that as well,” Jones said.

Also, in the works for Jones is establishing rapid antigen testing at every site for any students or staff exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. It would assure that those in the school community could get results and be isolated immediately. Students in after-school activities like sports and marching band will be included in each of the programs.

Both Jefferson Union and Cabrillo said there is currently no evidence of community transmission at schools, and having a robust testing program in place will help clarify the sources of new cases. At the last count on Friday, Jefferson Union had 23 reported COVID-19 cases to date, Pacifica School District had 13 to date, and Cabrillo had 8 cases since the first day back.

Sarah Wright is the deputy editor for the Review. She reports on unincorporated San Mateo County and local schools. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and has worked in policy and communications in Washington, D.C.

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