Solana Beach Schools to test all students, staff for COVID-19 before Sept. 21 return

A welcome back sign at Carmel Creek School in Carmel Valley.

The Solana Beach School District will go above and beyond the school reopening requirements by exploring entering into a partnership with UC San Diego to provide COVID-19 testing to all staff and students prior to their return to campus.

SBSD Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger said the testing program is an increased health and safety measure to prevent transmission from the onset of schools reopening in order to keep schools open. Per the state guidelines, schools must close temporarily if 5 percent of students or staff at a school test positive for COVID-19.

The agreement with UCSD is not yet final as the lab still needs to be certified. As a back-up plan, the district would use a mobile lab for testing before the return to school on Sept. 21, potentially joining the UCSD partnership later in the fall.

Following their motto of “go slow, go small to go long,” the district plans to open with a hybrid model on Sept. 21, with students alternating days on campus. The hybrid schedule consists of cohorts attending Mondays and Tuesdays, and Thursdays and Fridays. A total of 940 students have opted to remain in distance learning in the district’s Online Scholars program.

“When we open in a pandemic it’s important to remember: None of us have done this before,” Brentlinger said at the board’s Aug. 27 meeting.

Brentlinger said staff and parents are divided into three different groups: some want the district to do whatever it takes to get students back in school as soon as possible, a larger group also wants to get back with maximized safety measures, and some staff and parents have made it very clear that they are not eager to return and have selected the Online Scholars model until there is a vaccine.

“We have various desires as we move into the 2020-21 school year and they’re all very personal. I want to acknowledge that I understand that, I appreciate and respect that,” Brentlinger said. “We all want to return to school…what I know from the board, myself and the leadership and our staff is that we just want to make sure when we do so, that we have done everything that we know by the science and from doctors that will allow us to open our doors and once we do, keep them open.”

While staff testing is a requirement of reopening, the district would be the first in the county that additionally plans to test all students.

The tests would be implemented as a research project and UCSD researchers would be able to study an elementary district reopening. The district would cover the testing costs which are estimated between $40 to $100 per test for the 500 staff members and 1,800 students who have opted to return to in-person school.

In addition to the re-entry testing, the plan is for the asymptomatic testing of teachers and students to continue in the fall, from October through December. Following winter break, students and staff will again be re-entry tested before returning to physical campuses on Jan. 11, 2021. Asymptomatic testing will also be administered in the winter and spring of 2021.

Testing throughout the year is estimated to cost a total of $800,000 to $2 million, which would be pulled from district reserves. There will be potential for staff to fold into county-funded testing for additional cost savings. The San Diego County Department of Education announced last week it is working with the San Diego Human and Health Services Agency to open additional testing sites in order to develop a testing program for all 80,000 county school employees.

Brentlinger said, according to Dr. Natasha Martin of UCSD, entry testing in conjunction with health and safety measures has a “huge” effect on reducing transmission and the total estimated infection numbers. Those additional health and safety measures include requiring all students to wear facial coverings, keeping classes in stable cohorts, maintaining physical distancing inside and outside of the classroom and enhanced cleaning and sanitation.

The student tests will be nasal swab tests— not the more invasive ones that go deeper into the nasal cavity but ones that can be self-administered by parents under school health personnel supervision at school site specific testing locations. The tests will have a 24-hour turnaround time and are scheduled to be done during the week of Sept.14-18.

The testing will push the district’s target opening date out a week—the district had planned to reopen on Sept. 14, waiting an additional 10 days after the date the county would allow schools to return after getting off the state watchlist for decreasing case numbers.

SBSD board member Dana King said he is in favor of the maximum amount of testing. Doing everything they can to identify the asymptomatic spread in young children will be important to help protect teachers, families and the larger community, King said.

“I understand its difficult and it takes another week or two. I don’t love that part and I know nobody does,” King said. “But I do think that having already lost one friend in the Carmel Valley area, a parent, to COVID I don’t think we want to do anything that takes any risk with our students or with our teachers, staff and our families.”

SBSD President Julie Union said that the district is doing everything they can to provide the safest environment for students and staff when they return, taking some cues from SBSD Vice President Debra Schade, who is a public health scientist. As part of the district’s reopening plans, the district also plans to continue doing temperature checks of students on campus although not required. Other mitigations include regular outdoor learning, hand sanitizing stations, individual AC units with highest level filters in the classrooms and built-in hygiene breaks throughout the school day.

Union said the board has received multiple phone calls and emails from parents inquiring about a faster return to school and it has been very difficult. Parents are frustrated and some have questioned the necessity of testing students. Union said, more than anything, she wants to have students back on campus and for parents to be able to go back to work if they are being held back.

“I know many districts around us are opening up earlier and it’s a lot of pressure and it’s also a lot of questions by parents, asking: ‘Can’t you please do the same?’” Union said. “It’s very hard because we want to have students in school as soon as possible as well but we have to do what we believe is right.”

SBSD Clerk Gaylin Allbaugh said as a parent who is in the trenches, she understands the concerns and the frustrations, particularly with technology issues on the first week of distance learning. “I really do understand the concern about having kids at home any longer than we need to be,” she said, noting that she has also heard concerns about the district’s readiness to reopen schools.

While friends and families are on different sides of the issue, Allbaugh said she believes it is worth it to take the time to be cautious and to take extra preventative measures to avoid any additional lost learning or emotional trauma of schools having to open and close.

“As a parent and a community member, I appreciate and thank the district for the additional practices that they have committed to of maintaining 6 feet of distance in our classrooms, requiring face masks and our commitment to rigorous and methodical testing. This is not something that you’ll see in other districts and I truly believe that this is going to make a difference,” Allbaugh said. “It really is important to me that once we open, we stay open.”