RSF School board takes no action on student surveillance testing proposal

The RSF School District has continued to update its prevention plan since opening in August.

Despite recommendations from the Rancho Santa Fe School District’s health advisory committee for re-entry testing of students following the Feb. 8-12 Family Week break, no board member made a motion on the item so there was no board vote on the proposal at the Jan. 28 board meeting.

The board had already approved re-entry testing for staff following Family Week and R. Roger Rowe School students will be in distance learning on Feb. 16 and 17 to allow for the testing to occur.

According to Dr. Stacy Charat, she and the two other physicians on the committee recommended the student surveillance testing in light of the new COVID-19 variant, which is considered to spread more easily, and that the role children play in the transmission of the virus is still unknown.

Charat said the testing provides an additional layer of safety on top of the effective and most important interventions the school already has in place— those of facial coverings, stable cohorts and physical distancing. While transmissions within schools are still very low, Charat said the surveillance tests could detect a positive case prior to students coming back to the classroom and decrease the chance of in-school transmissions or cohorts having to quarantine.

The board could not support the testing due to concerns about the timing and the cost benefits.

One drawback for the board was that the student testing cannot be mandatory. In neighboring Solana Beach School District, they have about 76-80% participation in their voluntary surveillance testing program. When the RSF district last surveyed parents, 56% said they would be interested in surveillance testing of students. With the district’s contract of $40 per test, the district would possibly be committing about $12,400 to $16,000 for the student testing.

If approved, students would have to be distance learning for the entire week of Feb. 15 with testing provided on that Saturday on campus. The board was concerned about the timing as some families may opt to extend their vacations and not return to town in time to participate in testing. Other students may not be traveling at all and the board’s priority has been to provide in-person instruction.

According to the latest updated California Department of Public Health (CDPH) guidelines on reopening schools, student testing is not required and the science regarding the extent to which asymptomatic testing achieves the goal of safely re-opening schools is “still under development.”

“Modeling studies show that masking alone and cohorting alone can decrease symptomatic infections more than weekly testing of students and school staff,” it states. “Taken together, these data suggest that a range of potential testing approaches can be considered for implementation as part of a comprehensive safety strategy.”

The district continues to fund symptomatic testing for students through its contract with UC San Diego Health, as well as response testing for students in the event there is a positive case in a cohort. Currently the district has one active staff case, two active student cases in the elementary school and one in the middle school. Superintendent Donna Tripi said they have quarantined the affected classes for 14 days. A dashboard on the district’s website allows the public to track student and staff case numbers at school.

Additionally, Tripi said the district offers families who are traveling or have additional exposures over break times the opportunity to quarantine their students and move to distance learning when they return from break—several families opted for that option in returning from winter break.

At the meeting, the board approved the addition of another staff testing in March. With the March testing and an April 12 testing already on the books following spring break, Rowe staff will have been tested every month since December.

Board approves air filtration upgrades
After a visit to the school last month, the county had recommended the district upgrade its ventilation system to a minimum efficiency value (MERV) of at least 13 from their current MERV-9 filters. At the Jan. 28 meeting, the board approved the $9,900 purchase of MERV-13 filters which will be installed over the Family Week break in February.

During public comment, teacher Lauren Hapanowicz said since July the Rancho Santa Fe Faculty Association has raised concerns about the school’s HVAC system—she said a faculty association request for individual standalone HEPA filters in all classrooms was denied.

“While we’re encouraged to see MERV-13 filters on tonight’s agenda, it’s disappointing and concerning that when we brought these workplace safety concerns up months ago they were disregarded,” Hapanowicz said. “This is a stressful year and we’re all striving to do the best job possible by teaching students in person with many new constraints while simultaneously teaching distance learners and always wondering if we might be taking home a potentially deadly virus to our loved ones and at-risk family members.”

Hapanowicz thanked the district for continuing to review and update its protocols and asked that the board continue to err on the side of caution by meeting and exceeding recommended guidelines to keep school as safe as possible.