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Successful testing pilot inspires hope in schools

Our school-based COVID-19 testing pilot ended on Friday in the Eatonville, Peninsula and White River districts.  We’re just starting our analysis of the data, but a preliminary review shows the program was successful.

One way to look at the success is through the basic numbers:

  • Approximately 10,000 tests given to 2,600 students and 1,400 staff across three districts over the last three weeks.
  • A positivity rate under 0.5%.
  • A much lower case rate than the Pierce County community at large.

Perhaps the best measure, though, is the hope inspired by the pilot.

“It’s been a journey educating through the pandemic. Participating in the school-based testing pilot was a game-changer,” White River Superintendent Janel Keating Hambly said. “It allowed us to bring our elementary students back on our campus. More kids are learning more because of the joint effort between the school district, Health Department and Pierce County Emergency Management. Our students and staff needed us to collaborate and take action! We are looking ahead with hope and making plans to return our middle and high school students to in-person learning.”

Community response was incredible.

For students and staff in the three districts, weekly testing occurred at 20 school sites Nov. 23-Dec. 18. The results helped isolate positive cases quickly and quarantine close contacts to prevent disease spread among the school population and beyond.

It is part of a strategy to give school and public health officials more data to consider when deciding when and how students and staff can resume in-person learning.

“Participation in a pilot testing program has provided additional evidence that counter measures can be taken in the schools to safely and effectively serve students in-person. It demonstrated for us that having kids in school is not a source of spread,” Peninsula Superintendent Art Jarvis said.

Director of Health Dr. Anthony L-T Chen described the program as an “incredible lift” that involved a 60-plus-person mix of Health Department staff and temporary workers, close to $8 million of CARES Act funds and coordination and planning with school officials in the three districts.

“We are thrilled by incredible community response and the joy and hope it has created in our students and school staff,” Chen said.

Videos from the White River and Peninsula districts provide a glimpse into how students and staff embraced the testing.

Pilot inspires confidence.

Combined with the new guidelines Washington State Department of Health announced last week, the information from the pilot gives us confidence there will be opportunities across Pierce County for more students to be back in school for in-person education.

Preliminary findings show COVID activity levels are low in schools and non-pharmaceutical interventions–such as physical distancing, wearing a mask, increased ventilation, health screenings, and increased disinfection–are working. Mitigation factors help keep COVID cases out of our schools and prevent further spread in classrooms even when community levels are high.

“We have seen very few positive cases with several hundred tests taken in Eatonville School District the last few weeks,” Eatonville Superintendent Krestin Bahr said. “This allows us to know that our mitigation strategies for health and safety as aligned to the CDC, DOH and OSPI Reopening Guidelines are working and appropriate for schools to reopen. The reliability of weekly testing has allowed our staff to feel safer and more assured that we are doing all we can to combat transmission.”

Learn more about the school-based testing pilot.

Two girls put on backpacks to get ready for school.