UPDATE: See below
Synergy School, a private TK-8 school in the Mission, reopened in February by taking part in a state pilot program to use Binax rapid tests in schools.
It appears to be the only school in San Francisco participating in the pilot program. That could, in part, be attributed to a lack of information on the pilot program.
At present, teachers are tested on a biweekly basis. While there are no guidelines at this time for testing asymptomatic students, Synergy hopes to increase testing for students from once a month to once or twice a week to be most effective, according to librarian Susanne DeRisi, who helped spearhead Synergy’s inclusion in the pilot.
The school previously opened for in-person instruction in October but had to shut down after someone tested positive, independent of the school, in November. The school made the decision at the end of last year that when it reopened, it would include testing.
“People are relieved,” said Tanya Baker, administration director, referring to parents and teachers. “They appreciate it, it gives them peace of mind.”
The Binax tests, which provide results within 15 minutes, are the same as the ones used at the UCSF/Latino Task Force BART Covid-19 testing site and that the health department is considering for its community clinics. School affiliates — including Dr. Arash Anoshiravani, a school board member and Stanford pediatrician — say the tests are reliable enough to be deployed in school, as well as cheaper than the more precise PCR tests.
Synergy staff said they consider themselves fortunate to have landed a spot in the state’s pilot program. Other school districts, like San Mateo’s La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District and San Diego’s Coronado Unified School District, are also a part of the program, though Synergy is the only school in San Francisco involved, according to DeRisi.
DeRisi found out about the tests from her husband, UCSF biochemist Joe DeRisi, who is also the co-director of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub.
She reached out to California’s public health department and soon received more information on how to register Synergy for a pilot program to use rapid tests in schools, working with public health officers Carol Glaser and Robert Nakamura.
Mission Local could not find more information about the pilot program on the city or state’s public health department pages. The city’s health department declined to comment directly on the pilot. The state’s department did not respond to a request for comment, but we will update the story if they do.
UPDATE: The California Department of Health (CDPH) confirmed Friday that it is piloting antigen testing to help schools open safely for in-person learning. For the pilot studies, CDPH looked for schools that represent the diversity of the state. It is currently piloting or planning pilots in San Diego, Sacramento, Mendocino, Modesto, Monterey, Napa, Los Angeles, San Mateo, Alameda, Yolo, San Benito, Placer and San Francisco counties. “We are gathering data from the pilots and hope to expand this to additional schools throughout the state soon,” CDPH wrote.
For Synergy’s part, Liz McDonald, director of development, said “We wouldn’t have known if Susanne hadn’t reached out and asked. We just got lucky that we were looking for more information.”
DeRisi says she hopes the program will expand to other schools in the city and state.
Regardless, Synergy’s testing program will continue, as the school has received 1,800 tests, enough to last the rest of the year.
“The need is so urgent to get students back to school,” DeRisi said. “We can’t wait, and we have to get the knowledge out there and as many people trying this as possible.”
As to whether testing is necessary to reopen schools, Anoshiravani, the pediatrician, says no: Distance, masking and washing hands have been sufficient to keep people safe even in clinical environments.
But it’s certainly a nice thing to have: “This is an important part of helping people feel more comfortable,” he said. “We should be using every tool we have at our disposal, and this is one of them.”
Cost could be a barrier to such an expansion. While the tests are provided to Synergy for free, the school has to cover the costs of PPE and administering the tests, which can add up to thousands of dollars. Either staff needs to be reallocated toward testing, or the school needs to hire an external lab to process the tests.
Synergy is using a combination of both methods. While the school waits for enough staff to be trained to run the site themselves, they’ve hired Bay Area Phlebotomy & Laboratory Services to run a pop-up lab on the playground.
“It’s quite expensive, but we used that money because we wanted to get school started as quickly as possible,” DeRisi said. “But we can’t afford to go beyond a couple of weeks with them.”
Thus far, no one has tested positive. If students or staff test positive, they would need to leave school and quarantine. Schools can most likely stay open if there is a positive case and their contacts are limited to a classroom cohort, according to DeRisi. Synergy closed earlier this year “out of an abundance of caution, and because there were close contacts in multiple classroom cohorts,” she wrote.
While parents can opt out of having their kids tested, none have done so. “Parents want to do what’s right for the teachers, and they want to do whatever would put teachers at the least amount of risk,” McDonald said.
Even the kindergarten students have been good about getting tested, she added, getting their noses swabbed with teachers by their side.