Solana Beach district finalizes agreement with UC San Diego Health for student, staff testing

The Solana Beach School District will offer voluntary testing to all students before school starts on Sept. 21.
(Karen Billing)

The Solana Beach School District board unanimously approved a proactive COVID-19 testing program for students and staff on Sept. 10. The partnership with UC San Diego Health will provide an additional health and safety measure as they prepare to welcome students back to in-person learning on Sept. 21 and help increase the likelihood of schools remaining open.

“This has been an incredible effort and conversations for this started very early in June,” said SBSD Vice President Debra Schade. “Getting the green light on Labor Day was incredibly significant for the work we’ve been doing.”

Fall re-entry testing was scheduled to be conducted the week of Sept. 15-17. Additional periodic asymptomatic testing will be conducted in fall of 2020 and winter and spring of 2021. Although the district cannot mandate testing for students, it is strongly encouraged that students participate. After the board’s decision, 1,300 students preregistered for testing by Sept. 12.

The partnership is not a research or clinical study as was discussed at the Aug. 27 meeting. UC San Diego Health technicians will administer the tests on Solana Beach school sites and all test results are private —UC San Diego Health does not share information directly with the district. Parents and employees are expected to notify school officials if results are positive and as a licensed medical facility, UC San Diego Health must report positive cases to state and local health officials.

SBSD Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger said they heard some opposition to the testing from parents including questions about the cost-benefit, privacy issues regarding the previously discussed research study, concerns about false positives, impacts on emotional and mental wellbeing and asking why the district is going above and beyond what is required by the state and county.

“We’re going above and beyond because we want to protect the health and safety of not only the children but also the adults on our campuses,” Brentlinger said. “We want to make sure that the adults and our students have those maximum safety precautions.”

Brentlinger said the proactive testing program will work in conjunction with the district’s protection measures such as face coverings, physical distancing, utilizing outdoor space, proper ventilation, hand washing and sanitation stations, and campus cleaning and disinfection. They also plan to go above and beyond the requirements by taking the temperatures of students on site.

Those in support of the district’s plan said the testing addresses the recent increases in cases and what is still being learned about children’s role in transmitting the virus. Supporters also said that testing is an “innovative” approach that protects students, teachers and the community at large.

“Testing is an important component of a comprehensive strategy to keep our schools and community as safe as possible and allows for sustained in-class instruction,” said Raha Shaw, a Skyline School parent and local pediatrician.

Shaw sent a letter in strong support of testing signed by 20 other local medical professionals and scientists—she also gathered the signatures of 100 additional parents in support.

Schade said the district is fortunate to be able to access the PCR (nasal swab) test that has a 99.8% sensitivity and accuracy rate at the cost of $40 per test, as well as have trained staff on-site to administer it. She said in other cases she has seen the cost be anywhere from $170 to $200 per test.

For the approximately 2,000 students and 500 staff members in the district, the tests throughout the school year could range in cost from $550,000 to $800,000, however, Brentlinger said the cost could be further reduced and testing levels could also fluctuate. The district will be receiving $1.3 million in federal CARES Act funding that could be used on the testing program.

SBSD Clerk Gaylin Allbaugh said the board is all extremely proud of the fact that they are going forward with testing of students, an “innovative” approach that more schools are taking. Chula Vista Elementary School District approved a partnership with Irvine-based Kahala Biosciences for a voluntary testing program for students last week and Los Angeles Unified, the largest school district in the state, has also announced plans to test students when they return to school. Private school La Jolla Country Day has an on-site testing machine for students and teachers.

“This isn’t ‘innovative’ in the sense of we’re crowing about how we can maybe do things better or different than a surrounding district or how we’re putting ourselves in a different class. When we’re talking about innovation here, what we’re saying is we’ve been presented with a situation here that we’ve never seen before,” Allbaugh said. “We really haven’t mixed kids up together since March and that, to me, means that we must think out of the box of how we can keep our students safe, our staff safe and our families safe.”

“As a parent and a community member this is extremely helpful to me in allaying fears and concerns that I have with my own student and family, getting them back in a room with other kids.”

Parents, teachers share concerns with hybrid model
When in-person school starts on Sept. 21, the district will be using a hybrid schedule with cohorts of students attending school on campus Mondays and Tuesdays, and Thursdays and Fridays. There will be a combination of daily live instruction and pre-recorded instruction when students are at home, opportunities for outdoor learning when they are on campus, and whole group, small group and independent learning time will be part of the learning day for all students.

Some parents are frustrated that the district is not opening five days a week like neighboring Del Mar Union and Rancho Santa Fe School Districts.

With the start of school just days away, some parents said there were still a lot of unknowns about how the hybrid schedule would work the three days when students are not at school and questions about how parents are expected to finance childcare or work full time if children are at home. One Solana Pacific parent said she is so upset she is on the verge of protesting at the district office—she and her husband felt like the decision to go hybrid was made in a vacuum with not enough communication to parents.

“The online learning has taken a negative emotional toll on students and a financial toll on full-time working parents,” wrote Moriel Cohen in her public comment to the board. “There needs to be a plan to get the kids back full time and soon. This hybrid is not practical.”

At the meeting, teachers also shared their frustrations and concerns about the hybrid model. Michelle Burzo, speaking on behalf of Carmel Creek School teachers, said teachers are now being asked to do two full-time jobs: in-person and online teaching with two separate cohorts and less planning time.

“Teachers are being asked to do the impossible,” said Burzo. “We foresee parents being unhappy and students unable to engage and an increase in asynchronous instruction.”

Jessi Atkins, a Solana Vista teacher and president of the Solana Beach Teachers Association, said she is hearing that teachers do not feel prepared to teach online all day with students also in the classroom and said that decisions are being made last minute with no time to process, plan or implement. She said many teachers are still ”completely in the dark” about the hybrid model and have many questions but no one seems to be able to answer them.

“Stress and exhaustion are at an all-time high and morale is at all all-time low,” Atkins said.

Following Brentlinger’s motto of “go slow, go small, to go long,” the board made the decision at its July 23 board meeting to return students slowly, deliberately and intentionally with the ultimate goal of getting students back five days a week. Brentlinger said they have told families that due to the ever-changing climate with COVID-19, the plan needs to be flexible and families need to be prepared to pivot one way or another: “The only constant is change and we just have to be prepared to be able to respond as need be and sometimes we don’t have all of the time that we all would like in order to do so,” she said.

Cat Gilbert, a Solana Vista and Skyline parent, said she appreciated the leadership for trying to come up with a solution that is best for kids and the community: “There’s no easy answer.”

“The option to move into the hybrid I know is very challenging for teachers,” said Gilbert. “As a parent, especially sending a child into a school with no open windows and no doors that go to the outside, it is tremendously concerning to have a full-size class in there. Having just half the students in for a few days a week not only gives the ability to get small individualized instruction but also test the waters and make sure we’re not doing something that is not safe.”