Dr. Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimates that roughly 40% of COVID-19 cases in America are asymptomatic. It is that prevalence of asymptomatic cases that makes fighting the spread of the COVID-19 disease so difficult, especially for school systems here in Arizona where classrooms may be full and space can be limited. That is why one Phoenix school system took the initiative in combatting any potential spread within its district. This novel approach has been pivotal in both getting back to in-person learning safely, as well as helping prevent the spread of COVID-19 to students’ parents, grandparents, and other loved ones.
The Madison School District, under the leadership of Superintendent Kenneth Baca, has partnered with Boston-based Concentric by Ginkgo Bioworks to implement an innovative schoolwide COVID-19 pool-testing program. Pool-testing, from the early onset of the pandemic, has served to quickly and efficiently identify the prevalence of COVID-19 in communities. School systems across the country have started to use it to ensure safety in their classrooms, sports teams, and faculty. The company’s pool-testing program has been implemented statewide in Massachusetts, as well as district-wide in cities like Baltimore.
“COVID pool-testing allows the District to be proactive and prioritize safety,” said Madison School District Spokeswoman Nicole Rodriguez. Furthermore, Concentric by Ginkgo spokesman Joseph Fridman spoke about what pool-testing gives to a school district like Madison. “Peace of mind,” he said. “When it comes to asymptomatic spread of coronavirus, ignorance isn’t bliss, unfortunately. Regular testing like the pooled classroom testing that Concentric provides help schools get the longitudinal data, the knowledge, and the confidence they need to operate in-person learning environments.”
The program’s pool-testing program provides its value through what is essentially an asymptomatic surveillance system for schools. Because individual testing of every student on a regular basis would be too problematic, as well as costly, the pool-testing program at Madison gathers up to 25 swabs of a classroom (or what is called a “cohort”),and tests all the swabs in a single batch. Tests can be conducted weekly, biweekly, or monthly depending on need. Results are then given to the school (typically within 48 hours) and if someone in that cohort has tested positive for COVID-19, Madison’s COVID-safety mitigation protocols are implemented and they have the ability to work with Concentric on further testing to identify the individual.
At first, there was some concern among school families about the invasiveness of in-classroom testing of students. It was an issue that Madison Schools did not take lightly.
“Student and staff safety is our number one priority,” said Rodriguez. “We continue to see a positive response from parents and staff. After the initial pool-testing, parents better understood the benefits and ease of the testing, and we continue to see greater participation in the weekly testing.”
Fridman added “”This is the first time that any of us have experienced this sort of in-school testing, so parents and teachers might not know how simple, quick, and painless the process really is. They might think the process is complicated, or that the swabs are the brain-ticklers (they’re not!), but even one testing cycle assuages these sorts of anxieties.”
The program has been in place at Madison School District for roughly 3 months, and schools across the Valley and the state are reaching out to Madison to express their interest in implementing the program at their own school and to hear about the program’s success. Given the tight budgets for schools across the country, federal and state money is on the way so schools can implement programs like this at no cost to them. When asked how federal and state funding ties into a school’s ability to implement a program like this, Fridman said “It’s crucial! Support from the federal government for COVID testing in schools makes sure that schools can pick the program that’s right for them. Thankfully, pooled testing brings affordable and simple testing to schools regardless of where they’re at in the process of receiving these funds.”