School & District Management Explainer

Testing for COVID-19 at School: Frequently Asked Questions

By Catherine Gewertz — March 16, 2021 12 min read
Carla Constanza, a nurse with Medford Public Schools, performs a COVID-19 swab test on 5th grader Zachary Maynard at McGlynn Middle School in Medford, Mass., on March 15, 2021.

School districts are increasingly reopening schools for face-to-face instruction after a year of virtual learning. But they are under immense pressure to keep COVID-19 from spreading in their buildings. That pressure will continue next fall, as most students aren’t likely to start receiving vaccines until late 2021 or early 2022.

Many schools are using mitigation strategies such as universal masking, physical distancing, and improved ventilation. Testing their own students and staff for the virus is another strategy that’s won broad support, but relatively few districts so far have shouldered that role.

School-based testing for COVID-19 isn’t easy; it’s heavy with technical considerations and fraught with complex logistics and trade-offs. With the help of experts, we help break down the basics.

Are most school districts already doing COVID-19 testing?

No, but the numbers are growing. In a nationally representative survey by the EdWeek Research Center in late February, 32 percent of district leaders—up from 17 percent in October—reported that they’re testing at least some staff members for the virus, or will do so when they return to in-person learning. Only 16 percent of district leaders said they were testing students, an increase from 7 percent in October.

COVID-19 testing is one of schools’ least-chosen mitigation strategies, according to the survey. More than 8 in 10 district leaders said they’re using tactics such as contact tracing, cleaning, and masking.

Are schools running these programs themselves, or having outside partners do it?

A January study by the RAND Corp., one of a suite of reports on COVID-19 testing produced by the Rockefeller Foundation, suggests that few schools or districts take on the challenges of testing without partners to help them.

Many districts have had support and guidance from their states because they participated in state programs to pilot the Abbott BinaxNOW rapid antigen tests distributed last year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A few have operated programs on their own. Others team up with local health departments or labs to run their programs. Some outsource the entire operation to universities or testing companies.

Running a COVID-19 testing program is undoubtedly a heavy lift, with scores of logistical hurdles to clear. Many experts suggest districts don’t do it alone.

“We think the most sustainable and scalable model is when schools and districts partner with testing vendors and services that offer start-to-finish approaches that offload most of the logistics from schools,” said Dr. Laura J. Faherty, who led the RAND study and is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Organizations have designed a range of resources for districts considering or planning COVID-19 testing programs. The Rockefeller Foundation created a playbook, and the superintendents’ group Chiefs for Change assembled a planning workbook, to help districts think through the process. Rockefeller COVID-19 advisor Mara Aspinall led a group that drew up a list of questions district officials can ask as they interview test vendors. Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security has curated a list of testing services.

How do districts pay for COVID-19 testing programs?

The most recent round of federal COVID-19 relief money, the American Rescue Plan, signed March 11, includes $129 billion for K-12 schools, which could be used for testing programs (as well as a wide variety of other programs and services for pandemic recovery). States can also draw on other money provided in the law: $50 billion devoted to stepping up COVID-19 testing generally, and $10 billion of that amount that’s aimed at helping districts set up screening programs to detect the virus early.

Federal funding from last spring’s CARES Act has supported many districts’ testing programs. They’ve also used state funds, drawn on their own operating budgets and local philanthropic support, and partnered with organizations, such as universities, that have carried part of the cost. California was recently approved to use Medicaid funds to pay for COVID-19 testing for low-income students.

Many districts took advantage of free Abbott BinaxNOW rapid antigen tests distributed to states by the federal government last year, too.

How much do testing programs cost?

It’s tough to put a total price tag on districts’ programs, since they often include staff time, and some costs might be carried by partners. But when it comes to the cost of tests and analysis, prices vary widely.

Benjamin Master, a co-author of the RAND study of districts’ testing programs, said some schools have been paying as much as $120 per test for molecular tests, such as the gold-standard PCR, which must be processed in labs. Others have found PCR prices as low as $20. Prices for pooled testing—where multiple samples are combined and processed together—can go as low as $10, he said.

Rapid antigen tests, which can be processed where they’re administered, without a lab, are available for as little as $5 per test, but that’s a bulk rate, Master said. Districts shopping on their own for such tests could pay $20 or $30 each.

Students at McGlynn Middle School are pool tested for COVID-19 at the front entrance of McGlynn Middle School in Medford, Mass., on March 15, 2021.

What’s the difference between diagnostic, screening, and surveillance testing?

Diagnostic testing aims to detect active infections, so staff or students who show symptoms, or have had close contact with an infected person, can be isolated and their contacts traced.

Screening aims to catch infections before people show symptoms, so schools can prevent outbreaks. Districts typically screen by offering tests to everyone and hoping for good opt-in rates. They can also randomly test a subset of their students or staff, or test just some groups, such as student athletes.

Another approach—surveillance testing—aims to understand how prevalent COVID-19 is in the school community. Districts do this by testing samples of staff or students, but they don’t send individual results back. Instead, they use results to inform decisions such as whether schools should offer in-person instruction or teach in remote-only mode.

Which COVID-19 tests are districts using?

Two types of tests detect active COVID-19 infections: antigen and molecular.

Antigen tests are faster, typically returning results in 15 to 30 minutes. Nasal or throat swabs can be processed on the spot, rather than in a lab. But they’re less able to detect low-level infections; confirmation with a molecular test is often recommended.

Molecular tests return results in 1 to 3 days, since their nasal, throat, or saliva samples are usually processed in a lab. They’re considered the gold standard because of their accuracy. The most widely known type of molecular test is the PCR.

PCRs can be “pooled,” meaning that multiple samples are combined for analysis, saving time and money. Pooling is particularly useful in “pod” or cohort instructional settings. If a pool’s results are negative, all those tested can be presumed to be negative. If a pool is positive, however, retests—or reanalysis of individual samples—must be conducted to isolate positive cases. Pooled tests run the risk of missing infections, too, since virus levels can be diluted in the batch.

How a district does testing depends on its needs and goals. For diagnostic testing, using a highly accurate test is important, experts say. For screening purposes, the ability to test frequently and get results quickly can be paramount.

“You’re going to miss people [who have the virus]. That will be the trade-off, whatever methodology you use,” said Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It can’t be the only thing you do to stop [COVID-19] spread, but it’s important that you do it.”

Do schools need to do all three kinds of testing?

Most public health experts—including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—advise districts to prioritize diagnostic testing. But if districts can manage a screening, or asymptomatic, testing program as well, many public-health experts encourage it, especially in regions where COVID-19 levels are moderate or high.

Screening is particularly helpful because such a large proportion of COVID-19 cases—more than half, by some estimates—are spread by people without symptoms. Screening can also build confidence among staff, students, and families that school settings are as safe as possible.

How can you tell if COVID-19 screening is effective?

One way is to measure the proportion of cases the program detects. The RAND researchers, for instance, found that across five districts, 44 percent of the COVID-19 cases detected in schools, on average, were caught in screening programs. (Additional cases were identified in school-based diagnostic testing programs.)

Another way is to measure whether they affect families or staff members’ confidence in returning to in-person learning. In the Wellesley, Mass., school district, 12 percent of the staff reported feeling “reassured” about the safety of in-person instruction before the district began its testing program, but that number rose to 82 percent after the district started a screening program. Similarly, parent confidence rose from 39 percent to 87 percent.

What does CDC guidance say about testing?

In February guidance, the CDC identified five priority strategies for minimizing COVID-19 spread in K-12 schools: masking, social distancing, hand and respiratory hygiene, cleaning of facilities, and contact tracing followed by quarantine. COVID-19 testing was not on that list.

But the CDC’s guidance outlines a valuable role for testing programs in schools—including the ability to offer more in-person instruction—when used in combination with the five other mitigation strategies.

At a minimum, the CDC said, schools should refer people with COVID-19 symptoms or exposure for diagnostic testing if they don’t conduct it themselves.

Districts “may also elect,” the guidance says, to use screening programs “as an additional layer of mitigation,” particularly in communities hit hard by the virus. Districts might also consider prioritizing staff over students, and older students over younger ones, given the higher risk of serious illness among adults, the CDC said.

Some advocates of school testing were dismayed that the CDC did not give testing a higher priority in its guidance to districts. “They totally punted,” one critic said.

But Greta Massetti, who leads the CDC team that creates guidance for schools and other institutions, said the agency examined studies from the U.S. and abroad, and interviewed school and public health officials, and saw a clear pattern emerge: Schools kept COVID-19 transmission rates low with the five strategies it prioritized, and “testing was often not part of that package.”

That led the CDC to conclude, Massetti said, that while COVID-19 testing offers “tremendous added benefits” of providing data and allaying staff and family concerns, it “isn’t a requirement for schools to reopen for instruction safely.”

What do these testing programs look like?

Testing programs vary widely.

The screening program in Medford, Mass., uses nasal-swab PCR tests, and more than 85 percent of staff and students participate, said David Murphy, an assistant superintendent who oversees the program. Schools have gotten it down to a science, funneling everyone through the swab lines twice a week, during class or at lunch, said Toni Wray, the district’s director of health services. Its partners, Tufts University and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University, help the district track tests and get results in 24 hours.

To continue testing and manage the cost, Medford switched this winter to pooled PCR testing. Even with CARES Act funding, and more federal money soon available, $50,000 a week for individual testing wasn’t sustainable, Murphy said. Pooled testing costs $5,000 per week.

There are statewide programs, like the one Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law in January. Through mid-April, that program is offering free pooled PCR testing for any district that’s doing in-person instructionor plans to return to in-person learning soon. The state will match districts with vendors to help them collect samples and process results.

The biggest district in the country, New York City, has instituted mandatory weekly testing on a rotating, random sample of students and staff in schools that have reopened for in-person instruction. The tiny McSwain Union district in California is moving from twice-weekly to four-times-weekly rapid antigen testing for staff, and 80 percent participate. Now it’s asking parents to allow their children to be tested, too, said Superintendent Roy Mendiola.

In Wellesley, Mass., staff members and middle and high school students collect weekly saliva samples at home and drop them off at school. Pooled PCR results come back from a local lab in 24 to 48 hours. A K-8 district in Illinois, LaGrange 102, runs an in-house program, conducting and processing a saliva test developed by its school board vice president, a molecular biologist.

Some Utah districts are using tests as an incentive. In this “test to stay” approach, students in high schools where case counts might force a switch to remote instruction can keep attending in-person if enough of them test negative on rapid antigen tests at school, or get a thumbs-up from an outside lab. A similar approach, called “test to play,” is used with sports and extracurricular activities.

Peggy Donahue, a nurse at McGlynn Middle School, hands a student a q-tip to perform a self-administered COVID-19 test at McGlynn Middle School in Medford, Mass., on March 15, 2021.

What are the biggest challenges of school-based COVID-19 testing?

Districts face a host of legal and regulatory issues, such as obtaining parent consent for student testing, protecting students’ confidential medical data, and obtaining a waiver that lets them collect test samples.

See also

Katie Ramirez, left, watches as her mother, Claudia Campos, swabs the mouth of her sister, Hailey, for a COVID-19 test at a testing site in Los Angeles on Dec. 9, 2020.
Katie Ramirez, left, watches as her mother, Claudia Campos, swabs the mouth of her sister, Hailey, for a COVID-19 test at a testing site in Los Angeles.
Jae C. Hong/AP

There are logistical issues, too, such as navigating multiple partnerships and scheduling and training staff to fill various roles in the program. Schools also will need a platform that tracks tests and results. And they must be ready to respond with the right programs and supports when they find positive cases or clusters.

Cost could also be an issue in many districts. Even though federal funds are available to support testing programs, districts have many other competing priorities during the pandemic, such as building academic recovery programs and beefing up personal protective equipment and education technology.

Districts that aren’t able to run their own testing programs should work closely with local health departments to refer staff, students and families for testing, the CDC has said.

“The benefits of school-based testing need to be weighed against the costs, inconvenience, and feasibility of such programs to both schools and families,” the CDC said in December guidance for K-12 schools.

Vaccines are becoming more available. How long will schools need to do COVID-19 testing?

Experts said they think testing could play an important role in K-12 COVID mitigation at least through the fall.

Massetti noted that there is not yet a vaccine authorized for use in children 16 and younger, and it could take many months to get large numbers of children inoculated.

Coronavirus variants continue to emerge, and people might end up needing booster shots. And even though the current vaccines are highly effective, they don’t offer 100 percent protection.

“As good as the vaccines are, it’s still possible to get COVID,” said Aspinall.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as Testing Students and Staff for COVID-19, Explained

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