In a massive logistical undertaking, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is launching its weekly Covid-19 testing program for around 9,000 students and 1,300 staff members.

Although County health protocols only require schools provide testing for symptomatic individuals, SMMUSD plans to carryout weekly surveillance testing in the belief that it will better allow the district to remain on top of outbreaks and keep children in the classroom.

“We have a raging Delta variant out there and we want to keep students and staff on campus to learn, so we have to be responsive to any kind of outbreaks, positive cases or signs of a positive case,” said Superintendent Ben Drati, adding that he expects many school districts to adopt a similar testing policy.

The weekly surveillance PCR test is a quick nasal swab that does not require a deep sample and can be self-administered, with the exception of students needing assistance. Testing will be conducted at each school site, per a schedule that will be conveyed to parents and staff, and evidence of a negative test will be required to access campus.

The district has partnered with two medical partners to manage its testing program. Dr. Now will test at Santa Monica High School, Lincoln Middle School and John Adams Middle School. Malibu Medical Group/CURE will test at all Malibu secondary schools, all Santa Monica and Malibu elementary schools and Olympic High School.

Several testing companies were considered and the decision to use these two providers was made on the basis of testing turn-around time, cost and experience in the field.

“Breaking up testing into smaller groups from multiple companies, allows us to get those results back in a timely manner and make the decisions of who needs to quarantine and who needs to isolate to keep students in school,” said Barrett Gottlieb, lead RN for the SMMUSD Covid-19 Testing Committee. “We are aiming for a 24 hour (test) turnaround time.”

Students or staff with a positive test result must isolate at home for 10 days and require clearance from a school nurse before returning to campus.

Individuals who have been exposed to Covid-19 must also isolate for 10 days. An exposure is defined as being within 6 feet of someone with confirmed Covid-19 for a total of 15 minutes within a 24 hour period with or without a mask or having unprotected contact with bodily fluids.

In the event that a student or staff member is experiencing symptoms of Covid-19 they will receive a rapid Covid-19 response test known as the Biofire 2.1 test. This test takes a deep sample at the back of the nose and checks for 18 different pathogens, including Covid-19, Flu, rhinovirus, adenovirus and enterovirus.

“These are some of the most common ones (pathogens) that we’re seeing that cause respiratory symptoms, particularly rhinovirus is important as that’s what we think of as your common cold,” said Tara Brown, director of student services. “If somebody has the common cold, we don’t need to quarantine the whole class and that keeps students in the room and preserves educational time.”

The costs of this extensive testing program will be mainly covered through the combination of a $1.8 million grant from the Los Angeles County Office of Education and insurance payments.

All parents are required to register for student testing and are asked to submit their insurance information. Uninsured individuals will still receive testing and the district will incur these costs, some of which will be covered by government reimbursement. There may be an additional district cost of approximately $110,000 for the school year for testing.

Families may submit a test and or mask exemption form for religious grounds, disability, medical condition, mental health condition or hearing condition that prevents their child from participating.