Sahuarita Unified School District is one of five school districts in the nation to provide free, voluntary COVID-19 testing for students and staff through a partnership with the CDC.
The Increasing Access to Testing Initiative is a national pilot program using federal resources set aside for COVID-19 testing to allow select schools to test their campus population for free.
SUSD Superintendent Manny Valenzuela said the district is excited for the chance to be one of the first schools to start the program and for another resource in mitigating COVID-19.
“When I was contacted about the possibility of participating in a new pilot it was another opportunity to go to our toolbox and develop resources to help us stay open,” he said. “Though there is cause for optimism with declining disease rates this thing is so uncertain we need to make sure we’re always using every tool we can access to support the health and safety of the full and safe operation of schools.”
Valenzuela said a professional colleague works in the biotech industry and has been advising the federal response to COVID-19. They contacted SUSD to say the district seemed like a good match for the program.
When the program starts, each school will have specific days assigned for testing. Students or staff can sign up for a time via SUSD’s website to receive a self-collected, shallow nasal swab PCR test. A consent form from a parent or guardian is required for students to participate.
“It won't be a disruptive process to the normal operation of the school day,” Valenzuela said.
Testing will be completed by eTrueNorth, a major national provider of COVID testing, and the district will receive results within 24 to 48 hours. SUSD will then run through its contact tracing and quarantine process should a test be positive.
The district will be working with the Arizona Department of Health Services and Pima County Health Department when it comes to reporting the results.
Valenzuela said the CDC will be sending a team to the schools to conduct the testing and they anticipate being able to test a room in five to 10 minutes in some cases.
Though the tests will be available once a week, they are not required for students unless they are participating in sports. SUSD has had a policy in place this year that makes it mandatory for student athletes to be tested on a weekly basis at school to play or practice.
The athletic testing program, facilitated by United Community Health Center, has been one Valenzuela called a success. And, it’s reinforced something about COVID-19 symptoms for the district — they don’t always present themselves in a positive case.
“One of the things I learned is a lot of people who get COVID, including young people, have mild or no symptoms but still have the ability to transmit the virus,” he said. “As we continue to test high school athletes we found that too. When we would identify an athlete that was positive on a test, the majority of them had mild or no symptoms.”
On-campus transmissions have been low at SUSD, with the majority of positive cases not being traced back to direct contact with someone on campus.
Since the start of hybrid classes, SUSD has only identified five cases transmitted on campus.
Valenzuela views the new testing program as another layer of COVID-19 prevention that can help keep schools open and prevent outbreaks.
“Where it makes sense is it provides a tighter safety net,” he said. “Every week we are testing at all the schools, it’s more assurance that people on the school campus are not infected and, similarly, if we do find somebody positive it maximizes our chance to identify them quickly, quarantine and preserve the school environment.”
Valenzuela said feedback from parents has been mostly positive, and right now they are working to address questions on the implementation of the initiative.
“I’m interested in seeing the response on how many will participate and I hope it will be strong,” he said. “I’ve gotten feedback that’s been encouraging; a national public health organization tapped us to be a pioneer in the development of a new program. A couple people have messaged me questioning if it was necessary.”
He is hopeful a majority of families will take the opportunity to receive the free testing.
The program will start April 19 and ends May 14.
For more information on the program or to sign a consent form visit susd30.us and click on the COVID-19 voluntary testing tab.