Stanford Medicine experts advise school districts on COVID-19 tests

Stanford Medicine faculty are helping Bay Area school districts determine how to access COVID-19 testing and are advising the Los Angeles Unified School District on its testing strategy.

Pooled samples for COVID-19 testing at the Stanford Clinical Virology Laboratory. The Burlingame School District, which is planning for in-person instruction, has requested a detailed testing plan that includes using the lab to process pooled test samples from its teachers and staff.
Steve Fisch

Stanford Medicine is lending its COVID-19 testing expertise to schools throughout California.

Experts are helping school districts in the Bay Area plan how to screen their staff members for COVID-19 infections when in-class instruction resumes. A group of School of Medicine faculty is also advising the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has the largest student population of any district in the state, on testing its staff, students and families.

“Stanford Medicine has established itself as a leader in developing innovative solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic — especially in testing,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “I’m proud that we will support school district testing efforts as part of our ongoing commitment to helping communities respond to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

Guidance issued in July by the California Department of Public Health recommended that reopened schools conduct regular surveillance testing for COVID-19 among teachers, office staff, custodians, bus drivers and other employees. Although the state guidelines include suggestions for appropriate testing frequency, they do not provide details about how or where school districts can get testing done. 

“What we heard from school districts was that they didn’t know how to access testing,” said Christina Kong, MD, vice chair of clinical affairs and medical director of Stanford Health Care’s pathology and clinical laboratories. Kong and other Stanford Medicine faculty are working with staff at Stanford Health Care and Stanford Children’s Health to connect Bay Area schools to testing resources. 

Most California counties on watchlist

More than half of California’s counties, including most of those in the Bay Area, are still on the state’s COVID-19 watchlist. This means most schools are unable to reopen and are starting the 2020-21 year using online instruction. But many districts anticipate reopening schools for in-person instruction in the next few months, and surveillance testing of staff without known COVID-19 symptoms or exposure can help officials track infections and assess the ongoing risks of bringing staff and students back to campus.

Stanford faculty are well-positioned to assist. Stanford Health Care was one of the first academic medical centers in the country to develop a diagnostic test for the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19, and it has conducted more than 200,000 tests to date. It continues to build its capacity for testing by bringing more equipment for processing test samples to the Stanford Clinical Virology Laboratory, and by using pooled testing strategies, which allow testing reagents to go further.

Christina Kong

Kong was motivated to reach out to schools when she saw how parents of school-age kids were struggling with campus closures and a lack of child care.

“We heard a lot of the talk during back-to-school planning about how you set up classrooms, handwashing, masking,” she said. “But we didn’t hear about testing. For schools, that’s not what they normally do; they didn’t know how to think about it. So we put it out there that we have capacity, and we’re happy to work with schools and districts on this.” 

Jennifer Fralick, administrative director of pathology and clinical labs at Stanford Health Care; Megan Bliss, director of strategic operations; Yvonne Maldonado, MD, professor of pediatrics and of health research and policy; Nancy Ewen Wang, MD, professor of emergency medicine; and James Zehnder, MD, professor of pathology and of medicine, have also been working with Kong to respond to local districts’ needs.

The Burlingame School District, which is planning for in-person instruction, has requested a detailed testing plan that includes using Stanford’s clinical labs to process pooled test samples from its teachers and staff. Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Cruz county officials have also reached out for advice, as have leaders at some local private schools. In some cases, it may make sense for districts to have tests processed somewhere other than Stanford; Kong anticipates connecting school officials to a variety of resources. 

“Stanford Health Care is committed to supporting any plans around testing of teachers and administrators that would facilitate getting our children safely back to school,” said Alison Kerr, chief administrative officer of clinical operations and vice president of the neuroscience and orthopaedic service lines at Stanford Health Care. “Not only do we support our children getting back to school for personal and family reasons, it’s the right approach for SHC to step into this space to help these school districts think about social distancing, masking, handwashing and testing as a holistic safety model. We are privileged to support this work.”

‘We have to learn to live with this disease’

Meanwhile, another team is advising the Los Angeles Unified School District on how to conduct COVID-19 testing and contact tracing for its staff, students and families. LAUSD is California’s biggest district and the second-largest school district in the country, with about 600,000 K-12 students and about 66,000 employees. Experts from Stanford Medicine, Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Los Angeles will provide strategic interpretation and epidemiological modeling of the data gathered during testing. 

“If these efforts succeed, LAUSD’s experience can help inform school reopening in the rest of the country,” said Kristan Staudenmayer, MD, associate professor of surgery. Staudenmayer has been collaborating with Maldonado and Kevin Schulman, MD, professor of medicine, to advise LAUSD. 

“It is clear that COVID-19 is not going away any time soon,” Staudenmayer said. “We have to learn how to live with this disease. That involves innovating ways to live important aspects of our lives as safely as possible, including getting kids back in school. It’s a different era, and we have to accommodate to this new world.”

California school district officials who are interested in receiving more information about Stanford’s testing capacity and advice can go to https://stanfordhealthcare.org/health-care-professionals/covid-19-test.html and fill out the lab intake form. 



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