The weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a staff member at the Newman School — Talmud Torah of St. Paul’s K-5 Jewish day school — tested positive for COVID-19.
In response, TTSP officially rolled out an initiative that had been planned for weeks: free on-site PCR testing for the Newman School, part of a program from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for educational institutions.
The program offers test kits, connects schools to a lab to get results, and provides the online infrastructure for easy access to test labeling and results free of charge. “It’s incredibly convenient, and arguably more accessible than a lot of other testing at the moment,” said Sho Garland, TTSP’s executive director.
As kids came for shortened in-person learning on MLK day, families received testing kits to swab Newman School students in their cars. TTSP then shipped the kits to the lab, and within nine hours the results were back (usually results come back in 24-48 hours).
One student was positive for COVID, and between the staff member and the student, most of the school was considered a close contact. Classes were made virtual for the rest of the week, and more testing was offered on Wednesday and Thursday. Two more students tested positive.
“It just was not responsible for us to continue to have classes on site until we knew that the people who were coming in were negative,” Garland said. Currently, the on-site testing is only available for Newman School students as other TTSP programs, like supplemental classes for teens, are virtual this school year.
The Newman School has layers of pandemic safety protocols: All staff is vaccinated and most are boosted, and there are mask and testing mandates. Every student needs a weekly PCR test that shows they are negative for COVID to come to class.
Vaccines dramatically reduce the risk of being hospitalized or dying from COVID, and vaccine boosters help sustain immune protection, including against the omicron variant. Masks, particularly high-quality ones like KN95s and N95s, also cut down the spread of the virus.
Garland credits all protocols, but particularly the testing mandate, with keeping Newman safe and in-person; last week is the first time the school has experienced more than one COVID case. All cases, including one student in fall 2021, were found early. Students had no symptoms when they tested, but developed symptoms by the time results came back.
“If there are questions about whether or not asymptomatic screening has value, I can confidently tell you that it does,” Garland said.
But there have been challenges with testing. PCR tests are difficult to find with the rise of omicron, and turnaround times for results have also taken a hit. Families were responsible for finding tests for their kids and sending the results to Newman, although TTSP did try to help with logistics by shipping Vault tests for students if families asked.
At one point, Garland had a call with Vault Medical Services to see if TTSP could order free testing kits in bulk for families, seeing as free kits are provided by Minnesota directly to any resident. But they were told that if TTSP ordered in bulk, the tests would no longer be free.
“I said, ‘so you’re telling me that if we order them, so that we can lower the logistical barrier to entry for our families, it will cost, let’s say, $85 apiece, but if our families order them on their own, it will cost nothing?’” Garland recalled. “And the guy just looked at me, ‘mm hmm.’ And I said, ‘you realize how ridiculous that sounds right’…it was very clear that we were both just cogs in the larger machine.”
For now, that is no longer a problem thanks to the HHS program. Parents only needed to make an account in the data system and sign a consent and HIPPA release form. Newman receives all the test results automatically (prompting one parent to happily respond “woot woot” via email).
The program will operate until mid-summer, when it runs out of funding. Garland is still unsure if TTSP will try to continue offering some form of on-site testing in the fall. Doing so depends on how any new pandemic trends play out.
Parents “are really grateful that we’re able to offer this additional resource,” Garland said. It’s what “I’ve always wanted to be able to do, precisely because we have a testing mandate.”