How we can keep schools open with COVID-19 testing and contact tracing

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By Brittney Murriel

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis — variantsbreakthrough infections and all — K-12 schools are desperately hoping to continue uninterrupted, in-person learning. While some children manage (even thrive) in the virtual classroom, distance learning has proven disadvantageous for many due to decreased engagement, negative emotional effects and technological inequities.

Experts agree that dedicated surveillance testing and contact tracing are key to providing continued classroom education. By taking positive coronavirus tests and using rapid, dedicated communication methods, contact tracing helps slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep school doors from closing. A lack of testing and contact tracing, meanwhile, could force a return to remote schooling once again.

Seeing this need, our Worksite Labs team has implemented contact tracing for a number of school districts. We’ve paired it with our quick-turnaround PCR testing to streamline schools’ COVID-19 preventive strategies and keep their doors open — making us one of the only companies to comprehensively provide both services. The pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon; until it does, we’re prepared to arm school districts with the tools they need to keep kids in the classroom.

The art of contact tracing

Launching contact tracing for school districts led us to adopt a set of specialized, leading-edge resources tailored to an educational setting. COVID-19 testing and contact tracing — though largely inextricable from each other — are very different practices, each requiring a unique set of skills and manpower.

Worksite Labs employs 40 full-time staff to provide contact tracing for our partnering public schools in San Mateo County, California. (More on that shortly.) Every new team member completed specialized training to perform their contact tracing duties as effectively as possible within the unique parameters of K-12 education. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention administered the contact tracing certification. 

Once processed, each Worksite Labs PCR test result is delivered immediately to the customer via email and to our data team, who share positives with contact tracers. From there, contact tracers reach out to infected persons and their families to provide next steps. Then, using information provided by our client, the contact tracing team identifies and reaches out to close contacts who might have been exposed.

In addition to student and staff schedules and seating charts, we ask our school partners to provide Wi-Fi, space for testing setups and other resources our contact tracers might need. Each positive case is automatically reported to contact tracers, as well as to school administrators via an external portal, enabling constant, delay-free communication — an essential component of seamless contact tracing.

Our work in San Mateo County

Our relationship with the San Mateo County Office of Education was sparked thanks to positive word-of-mouth about Worksite Labs. Our five northern California testing sites (two in San Francisco and one each in San Jose, Oakland and Sacramento) have served and satisfied thousands, and San Mateo educators took notice. We’ve become the official contact tracing provider for many of the county’s 23 school districts, and the official testing provider for a number of those as well. Our services will support roughly 30,000 students overall and continues to grow.

Access to reliable COVID-19 testing is critical for all public schools – not just students. In August, California became the first state to require all unvaccinated staff to get tested weekly. San Mateo officials further recognized the importance of contact tracing in their schools, especially for protecting students too young to get vaccinated and older, more vulnerable staff.

However, contact tracing presents a massive burden for administrators, one that threatens to distract them from the already daunting task of running a school system. We began with a few questions for San Mateo educators: “What challenges are you facing in keeping the community safe? How can we shoulder these burdens for you?”

The first step was to develop a personalized scheduling system for the schools, through which parents can easily pencil in appointments for their kids. We utilized our proprietary technology platform to develop this system in a mere two weeks, having it ready well ahead of the first day of school. Only parents can use the system to schedule tests for their children, though kids don’t need parent supervision to show up for a test. Though there are no mandated testing requirements for students, each district notifies parents about positive cases on campus right away.

Families won’t simply be thrust into the unknown when they learn their child has tested positive or been exposed. Our contact tracers, along with school administrators, will ensure these parents receive all necessary information — available testing locations and scheduling procedures — so they can get their kids tested. Any student who needs a spur-of-the-moment test while on campus can simply visit the front office and call a parent to book an appointment.

While we only take testing samples at our school pop-up sites from Monday to Friday (rotating from school to school each day), our contact tracers are on duty seven days a week. So, if a student gets tested Friday afternoon and comes up positive Saturday morning, they won’t have to wait until school resumes on Monday for results. Our contact tracers are ready to reach out to families as soon as a positive test comes through.

The opportunity ahead

Parents and school administrators alike want to ensure the safety of their kids and the community at large; combined testing and contact tracing do just that. Though every school district’s size and health situation vary, each can benefit greatly by receiving both testing and contact tracing — especially from the same provider.

By merging these two crucial preventive strategies, Worksite Labs has the power to protect our schools and keep classrooms open with maximum efficiency, flexibility and reliability. We delegate complex preventive measures across multiple talented teams to ensure as many individuals are tested, informed and protected as possible. And (it bears repeating), our seamless communication — both with clients and between our own departments — is the crown jewel of any successful operation.

We’re always open to new business partnerships. If you’re interested in Worksite Labs for school-based testing and contact tracing, contact Senior Director of Partnerships and Engagement Dana Webster at dwebster@worksitelabs.com.

Brittney Murriel, MHA is regional site director and clinical administration director of Worksite Labs.


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