In summary

Eleven California school districts have begun COVID screening that has the potential to reduce the risk of transmission in schools.

By Anthony Iton, Special to CalMatters

Dr. Anthony Iton is senior vice president of the California Endowment, tony@tonyiton.com. He has a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a law degree from UC Berkeley. Follow him on Twitter @dr_tonyiton.

California is in a costly and precarious stalemate, and the educational trajectory of millions of K-12 students hangs in the balance. The situation is particularly dire for Black, Brown and Indigenous students.

School shutdowns are producing high levels of anxiety and depression, contributing to profound learning loss, exacerbating achievement gaps, and will likely drive more Black, Brown and Indigenous students to drop out. 

We are in a crisis within a crisis, and the social, economic as well as moral consequences will be lifelong and felt by all Californians. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom says, “We want schools to safely reopen, Period, full stop.” He cites the science, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Anthony Fauci and President Joe Biden. To advance this goal, Newsom has crafted an incentive-based plan to entice districts to reopen starting with the youngest and most vulnerable students. 

Many teachers and union officials feel that reopening too quickly may pose undue risks to teachers and staff. They prefer to wait until all teachers have been vaccinated with both doses of either of the two most available vaccines. California has 1,037 public school districts, more than 6.1 million students and about 319,000 teachers. Fully vaccinating that many teachers would likely take months. This is a serious stalemate.

There is a better way to thread this needle.

For the past several weeks, 11 California school districts in Merced, Los Angeles, San Mateo, Fresno and Alameda counties, have begun piloting a novel COVID screening approach that has the potential to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the school setting by 80%-90%. The approach utilizes so-called “antigen tests” to conduct frequent COVID testing of all staff and students on the school campus, with results within 15 minutes so immediate action can be taken to reduce potential spread. 

The strategy is available, affordable and effective and, in conjunction with handwashing, social distancing and mask wearing, allows parents and teachers to be reassured that the school is the safest environment in the community. 

The approach is being supported and co-sponsored by the California Department of Public Health, the Department of Education and Superintendent Tony Thurmond because he knows this is the best way to get our students back in school. The goal of this effort is to demonstrate that twice weekly testing of all students and staff can quickly detect any infectious COVID-19 cases so that the virus cannot spread on school campuses. The tests are quite sensitive in asymptomatic people and easy to perform even with elementary school aged children. 

The recent data from the pilot effort shows that schools with rapid antigen testing can be the safest place in the community.  Since January 2021: data shows that in eight of the school districts where testing began shows that out of 3,256 tests conducted, there have been only seven positive tests, which is a 0.21% positive test rate or 1 in every 465 staff and students tested. 

One of the participating superintendents, Roy Mendiola of McSwain, notes, “We can catch asymptomatic individuals before there’s an opportunity for them to spread the virus on campus, so it’s created a lot of peace of mind.  It’s really demonstrating a manageable way to keep kids on campus safe.” 

For Black, Brown and Indigenous parents and families who may feel, for justifiable reasons, some distrust that the educational system has their children’s best interests at heart, school testing can give them some real data and facts about school safety.

Keeping teachers and students safe and healthy on campus must be among California’s highest priorities. We can bridge this stalemate and accelerate the safe return to school of our children and teachers. Particularly for our low-income Black, Brown and Indigenous children, every day that passes with them out of school risks further entrenching the achievement gap and cementing lifelong disparities in opportunity.

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Dr. Anthony Iton has also written about administering the COVID vaccine with equity in mind, that the vaccine should be given first to the most vulnerable and that California should invest in a contact tracing workforce

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