Testing underway

La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District students essentially test themselves for coronavirus before handing the swabs to staffers. Photo courtesy Kristen Lindstrom

Last month, students from Pescadero Elementary School were sent home with permission slips regarding a COVID-19 testing program called Safely Opening Schools. The question was would parents give permission for their child to participate?

The eight-week pilot program, launched by nonprofit The California Endowment, tests all teachers, staff and students with permission twice a week for the virus using a rapid antigen test approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The goal of the program is to help school districts most affected by the pandemic to safely reopen by providing regular, effective and affordable testing. In San Mateo County, La Honda-Pescadero Unified, Ravenswood and Redwood City school districts are participating.

In the first week of the pilot at Pescadero Elementary, which officially began on Feb. 25, 16 staff and 33 students were tested. Ten to 11 students did not test because their parents opted out, and 12 to 14 students had yet to return for in-person learning, which became an option in November when the elementary school reopened with a half-day schedule.

Bringing back students into the classroom for in-person learning has been a top priority for LHPUSD since schools went remote last March. Many students do not have internet access at home, making distance learning virtually impossible. In response, the district set up learning centers with internet capable desks, shade and water at several ranches in the area.

However, many families were still struggling.

“We have a lot of working parents,” LHPUSD Superintendent Amy Wooliever said. “We knew that it was causing a lot of chaos in the home.”

As a result, LHPUSD staff was eager to participate in the pilot for the Safely Opening Schools program as it adds an extra layer of safety to in-person learning.

Pescadero Elementary Principal Kristen Lindstrom is excited about how rapid testing can help the community as a whole. On the South Coast, where there is a lot of shared housing, consistent COVID-19 testing is essential to maintaining the spread.

“We have incredible data at our fingertips,” Lindstrom said. “We can help limit this spread much, much quicker, because we know right away, versus having to wait two days (for other kinds of tests). And within those two days, how many more people have also been infected?”

But some families were initially uncertain about allowing their child to be tested.

According to Tanya Zavala, who teaches a hybrid third and fourth grade class at Pescadero Elementary, some students were going home with permission slips and telling their parents that the test might be painful.

“There were kids that were afraid because they were comparing the test to the nose swab that goes up to your brain,” Zavala said. “So they were scared.”

Once students and parents were assured that it would not be the type of nasal swab test that requires deep entry, and that it would be self-administered by the students, most families became enthusiastic.

Now, as San Mateo County moves to less restrictive tiers in the statewide reopening plan, LHPUSD is working to reopen the middle and high school, and Wooliever hopes both schools will also have the opportunity to participate in the Safely Opening Schools program.

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