5 keys to establishing effective school COVID testing

'Our interviews with K-12 schools show that COVID-19 testing is complex, but doable,' researcher says
By: | March 9, 2021
A student receives a COVID test at the City School District of Albany in New York.A student receives a COVID test at the City School District of Albany in New York.

Integrating COVID-19 testing into K-12 schools’ reopening and response plans can make families and staff more comfortable with returning to in-person instruction, a new report says.

However, even well-resourced districts have struggled to launch a comprehensive COVID-19 testing program, according “COVID-19 Testing in K–12 Schools Insights from Early Adopters,” by the RAND Corporation.

Schools need access to rapid-turnaround tests; additional staffing or strong partnerships that provide logistical support; technical assistance for the design and execution of testing programs; and a strategy for encourage the school community to participate.

“Our interviews with K-12 schools show that COVID-19 testing is complex, but doable,” said Laura Faherty, lead author and a physician policy researcher at RAND.

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Partnering with public health departments, local health systems and testing vendors was a critical step taken by districts that were early adopters of COVID testing.

Still, even with these partnerships in place, district leaders contacted by RAND’s researchers described being “hungry for guidance and in need of a lot of technical assistance,” Faherty says.

Districts leaders also report that some staff and parents were hesitant about testing due to privacy concerns and the potential sharing of health information. In some communities, there was also doubt about the actual risk posed by the virus, the report found.

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“To give their communities peace of mind to return to in-person learning, schools often started small, using a pilot period to work out many of the details before fully launching,” said Benjamin Master, co-leader of the project and a policy researcher at RAND.

“The most scalable testing models that we identified involved districts that were able to access expert technical support and partners who could help manage the logistics of testing,” Master said.

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The report offers recommendations for how schools can develop—and policymakers can support—effective COVID-19 testing:

  1. Expand funding to ensure schools can access tests, hire additional staff and contract with vendors as needed to implement testing.
  2. Continue to invest in research and development of testing solutions that are convenient for schools to use.
  3. Provide incentives such as paid sick leave for teachers and families to participate in testing and isolate as needed.
  4. Promote the use of standardized metrics and data platforms to support decision-making.
  5. Provide resources to strengthen state and local health departments so they’re equipped to help schools design testing programs and respond to positive tests.