A case study on one team of educators’ mission to keep kids safe through testing
Bringing rapid PCR into schools to control the spread of COVID-19
The central role schools are playing in helping communities navigate the COVID-19 pandemic can’t be underestimated. Since March of 2020, students, administrators and teachers have had to navigate unprecedented academic situations including virtual classrooms, in-person learning with stringent risk mitigation measures, and hybrid models that combine elements of the two. Each one of these atypical formats come with unique challenges that, at times, have seemed impossible to overcome — but educators have worked tirelessly to implement protocols to protect children while providing the instruction and guidance they need.
During uncertain times, one school implemented creative solutions to stay open
The staff at the University Child Development School (UCDS) in Seattle knows firsthand how hard it is to achieve a safe and comfortable educational environment during a time when the world is gripped by fear, worry, and uncertainty. Like many schools, UCDS has gone through a variety of setups over the past two years to keep their academic programs moving forward during the pandemic. At one point, the school doubled the number of teachers on staff to oversee both remote and in-person learning. During this hybrid period, they set up tents for instructors running zoom calls so virtual and in-person learners had dedicated focus and attention. When UCDS finally returned to all in-person learning last year, they had four “first days of school,” staggering entry by grade level to ensure there was time and care dedicated toward optimizing efficient mitigation strategies.
“We are so tightly networked in our school and if anyone is stressed or anxious, it can affect the kids. It’s been really important to us that everyone feel that they’re safe here.”Paula Smith, Head of School, University Child Development School
Paula Smith, Head of School, worked closely with the school’s COVID-19 response teams to keep students as safe as possible while also trying to ease teachers’ and parents’ fears. “The anxiety level that everyone felt coming to work was high, and it was high for our parents as well,” said Smith. “We are so tightly networked in our school and if anyone is stressed or anxious, it can affect the kids. It’s been really important to us that everyone feel that they’re safe here.”
“We just didn’t have access to the resources we needed to lower everyone’s stress,” added Jennifer Vary, Assistant Head of School at UCDS.
UCDS was not alone in their quest to find and develop effective COVID-19 testing solutions. Schools across the country have struggled with the logistics of funding, implementing and sustaining effective test programs, leaving many to build their own makeshift models or to not offer testing at all . “There's a good amount of nonspecific information around testing in the public domain, making it hard for schools to know where to start,” says Dr. Vin Gupta, Critical Care Pulmonologist and Professor at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
Dr. Gupta says schools know they should test, but there are a lot of questions around how testing should be done. “How much testing is enough? Who should be tested, and when? What happens if there isn’t enough testing supply? What tests are best? And how do you navigate all these questions with a changing virus? It's really complicated, and many districts across the country aren’t being given solutions that are concrete.”
The solution: UCDS turned to rapid PCR for convenient onsite testing with accurate, same day results
This year, UCDS shifted its strategy and is taking a new approach to testing that has given the staff new confidence in their results and enhanced their ability to keep kids and teachers safe. At the center of this change was the addition of a rapid PCR option into their testing protocol. “There's a significant edge to rapid PCR technology. It makes testing programs a lot more convenient, while imparting greater confidence,” said Dr. Gupta.
UCDS chose to adopt Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Accula SARS-CoV-2 Test as part of this new, more robust testing model. The Accula test delivers accurate results that are in line with lab-based PCR — the gold standard for COVID-19 testing — in approximately 30 minutes. The Accula SARS-CoV-2 Test relies on a small dock that plugs into a standard wall outlet, so not much room is needed to create a designated test area. “A good thing about this equipment is you can set up a testing area in a small space. It’s amazing,” said Smith.
When school leaders first decided to use the Accula test, they weren’t sure what sort of training their staff would need for the PCR-based system. Vary initially wondered if she’d be able to operate it, but, as someone who doesn’t have formal lab training, now feels confident processing tests. “I thought, ‘Here is this scientific equipment — will we really be able to use it?’ But we’ve become completely comfortable with the process and trusting of the results. It’s not a hard system to learn and results are really clear and easy to read. I’ve run at least a half a dozen tests in just one morning.”
The Accula system is small, mobile, and easy to use with minimal training required. These features, along with same-day, accurate PCR results, make the platform a desirable option for schools.
With no need for confirmatory testing, rapid PCR offers dual benefits: keeping kids safe and in school
The Accula test requires a minimally invasive nasal swab and delivers results in approximately 30 minutes.
Over time, many states have adopted “test-to-stay” protocols for their districts, outlining when, why, and how often students should be tested to determine if they are safe to stay in school. Unlike the model adopted by UCDS, however, most of these programs strictly rely on antigen tests onsite with lab-based PCR to supplement . Given the inferior accuracy of antigen tests , these programs come with a high risk of potentially missing positive cases. And when PCR testing is needed for symptomatic students or to confirm a positive antigen result , the longer turnaround time waiting for lab-based PCR results could cause students to unnecessarily miss prolonged periods of school.
“Rapid PCR technology offers many advantages, but most importantly it delivers results schools can trust, whether positive or negative. This is a huge benefit logistically because onsite PCR testing saves teachers and students from the time and hassle of needing to seek a confirmatory test elsewhere,” added Dr. Gupta.
UCDS’s model combines the accuracy of PCR with the speed of antigen tests, capturing the best of both worlds. The school does still rely on other test measures – including weekly screenings using rapid antigen tests – but rapid PCR gives them a reliable method for testing anyone who has symptoms, has been in close contact with a COVID-19 infected person, or has a positive antigen test result. This approach allows them to identify and address positive cases quickly and, perhaps of equal significance, determine when someone is safe to stay in the classroom.
As the SARS-CoV-2 virus evolves, rapid PCR testing remains a reliable tool
When the Omicron variant caused cases across the country to skyrocket following the 2021 holiday break and overall testing demand exceeded capacity, some states were forced to cancel or delay returning to school . Smith shared how critical rapid PCR testing was in helping UCDS open back up in the new year. “Our in-house PCR testing capability has been extremely useful in keeping teachers here on campus when they have had close contact and has given everyone here the confidence that they are safe coming to work,” said Smith. “Running at least 40 PCR tests the day before our students were back in the classroom made it possible for teachers to begin school as planned, rather than sit out waiting for a PCR test from an overwhelmed medical system.”
As schools continue to navigate COVID-19 case fluctuations and the evolving SARS-CoV-2 virus, it’s important that testing options remain robust in the face of new variants. Reassuringly, analyses conducted by Thermo Fisher demonstrated that both the Omicron and Delta variants had no impact on Accula SARS-CoV-2 test performance .
With an effective testing protocol in place, educators can focus on their mission with peace of mind
Most important to the UCDS team, their ability to offer rapid PCR testing helps their community feel as safe and protected as possible during these uncertain times. “Sending your child to school right now can be scary,” Smith continued. “For us to have confidence that we’re keeping the kids safe, and for teachers and parents to be able to sleep at night, this test has been huge in lowering our anxiety and has made it possible for us to stay open.”
As the pandemic continues, schools need the resources and support necessary to not only stay open, but also maintain their core mission to foster young minds in a healthy environment where everyone feels safe. “People go into teaching because they want to change the world. We care very much about the impact we’re having on those around us,” commented Smith. UCDS believes reliable, comprehensive testing has played a big part in allowing them to continue to succeed in their goals.
Looking ahead, Dr. Gupta says it’s important that schools and administrators work proactively to implement reliable testing solutions for the long term. “We’re living in the age of globalization, and respiratory pandemics are set to pose a threat to our way of life, even after COVID-19. What we need is greater awareness about rapid PCR platforms and policies that include them. Investing in rapid PCR technology will help keep schools and workplaces open. At the end of the day, it's about instilling confidence in the safety of school settings as much as it as it is about the underlying science, and that's where rapid PCR excels.”
“There's a significant edge to rapid PCR technology. It makes testing programs a lot more convenient, while imparting greater confidence. What we need is greater awareness about rapid PCR platforms and policies that include them.” Dr. Vin Gupta, Critical Care Pulmonologist and Professor at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation
3. Khandker, S. S., Nik Hashim, N., Deris, Z. Z., Shueb, R. H., & Islam, M. A. (2021). Diagnostic Accuracy of Rapid Antigen Test Kits for Detecting SARS-CoV-2: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of 17,171 Suspected COVID-19 Patients. Journal of clinical medicine, 10(16), 3493.
5. Mesa Omicron Variant Detection Letter_29NOV2021_MKT-70081.pdf (thermofisher.com)
Disclaimer: This Accula SARS-CoV-2 Test has not been FDA cleared or approved but has been authorized for emergency use by FDA for use by laboratories certified under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) of 1988, 42 U.S.C. §263a, that meet requirements to perform high, moderate, or waived complexity tests. The test is authorized for use at the Point of Care (POC), i.e., in patient care settings operating under a CLIA Certificate of Waiver, Certificate of Compliance, or Certificate of Accreditation. This test has been authorized only for the detection of nucleic acid from SARS-CoV-2, not for any other viruses or pathogens. The emergency use of this test is only authorized for the duration of the declaration that circumstances exist justifying the authorization of emergency use of in vitro diagnostics for detection and/or diagnosis of COVID-19 under Section 564(b)(1) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 21 U.S.C. § 360bbb-3(b)(1), unless the declaration is terminated or authorization is revoked sooner.