RSF School weighs its options on COVID-19 testing for students

R. Roger Rowe School
(Staff photo)

Since reopening for in-person learning five days a week on Aug. 24, the Rancho Santa Fe School District has not experienced a positive student or staff COVID-19 case.

Last week, however, a parent of a student did test positive. According to RSF School District Superintendent Donna Tripi, the district followed all of its safety protocols in the safe reopening plan: The parent’s student was sent home, staff was notified and a letter went out to all of the parents from that classroom. Only the student who had exposure to COVID-19 has to be excluded from attending in-person school for 14 days, however, some students in the class chose to stay home as a precautionary measure.

Total enrollment at R. Roger Rowe School is at 553 students (336 in elementary school, 217 middle school) including 110 new students and 59 new families. Of those students, about 10% have opted to remain in the remote learning program, down from 20% at the start of the school year.

The district’s health and hygiene committee continues to work on exploring the best ways to have everyone back at school in the safest learning environment possible. At the board’s Oct. 15 meeting, the board discussed the possibility of providing symptomatic or asymptomatic COVID-19 testing for staff and students. No decisions have been made as it was just an informational item.

In a recent survey of R. Roger Rowe families, 56% of 228 respondents said they were supportive of asymptomatic testing while 81% are supportive of symptomatic testing.

Dr. Natasha Martin, an associate professor of medicine at UC San Diego and also an R. Roger Rowe parent, was able to share some of her knowledge as an infectious disease modeler with the board at the Oct. 15 meeting. Martin develops transmission models to evaluate the impact of public health interventions and was involved in the modeling for UCSD’s Return to Learn testing program and the testing program that has been implemented at neighboring Solana Beach School District.

Solana Beach performed asymptomatic re-entry testing for all staff and voluntary testing of 80% of its student population. Only one student was found to test positive prior to the return to in-person school on Sept. 21. The district’s fall asymptomatic testing began last week and will run through Nov. 15. The district also plans to test students and staff prior to the return to school after winter break in January.

Martin said that asymptomatic testing can help prevent transmission by capturing individuals who are asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic and therefore reduce outbreak sizes. Martin said that school-age children have higher rates of infections, which results in a lot more “silent transmissions” as they are more often asymptomatic carriers.

As the board considers both symptomatic and asymptomatic testing, Martin said: “Any testing is better than no testing.”

“It’s really important that easily accessible symptomatic testing is available with fast turn-around times,” Martin said. “Even with symptomatic testing only you can prevent an important number of infections as long as that testing is delivered in a timely manner. Ensuring that it’s easy to access with a fast turn-around time is critically essential to reducing transmission as well as reducing the amount of school absences because people are waiting for their test results to arrive.”

Prior to the start of school, all RSF School District teachers and staff were tested for COVID-19. The California Department of Public Health guidelines state that it is important for staff to be tested on a regular basis but did not set requirements—the district is following the county’s guidelines in which staff is tested every two months.

The guidelines state that testing should be part of a comprehensive strategy for a safe reopening and should be used in conjunction with promoting behaviors that reduce the spread, including physical distancing, facial coverings and hand washing.

The district encourages parents to have their children tested if they have symptoms but it has been challenging, Tripi said. Parents have reported that access has been difficult and providers don’t always agree to test. “I think it is getting somewhat better,” Tripi said, noting that the county is now testing children 5 and above where they used to only test children 12 and above.

As discussed at the meeting, the district’s first priority is to continue with asymptomatic testing of staff and they will consider contracting with UC San Diego Health for symptomatic testing for students and staff.

Tripi said this agreement would ensure that symptomatic people are getting tested, not requiring families to have the resources for testing. The testing can help can stop an outbreak and as the results are received in 12-48 hours, children can return to school more quickly.

The district has estimated that the cost of providing this testing would be about $12,800 to $16,800 through the end of the school year. The funding could come from the district’s approximately $45,000 in remaining state and federal COVID-19 funding.

Moving forward, Tripi said the secondary priority for the district would be to explore increasing asymptomatic testing for staff or consider asymptomatic testing for students. RSF School Board Vice President Kali Kim and trustee Tyler Seltzer both stated they remain skeptical about the asymptomatic testing of students.

Kim and RSF School Board President Scott Kahn were both complimentary of Tripi’s efforts to bring forward different options and information around increased testing possibilities.

“It reinforces how seriously we take making sure that everyone is kept safe, that we’re doing the best that science allows us to do,” Kahn told Superintendent Tripi. “You’re leading, you’re not just looking at the guidelines and saying ‘That’s good enough’.”