Most Bexar County-area school districts will begin testing their staff and students regularly for the novel coronavirus starting in November. But the largest school district, Northside Independent School District, has so far held off from participating in the initiative.

County commissioners on Tuesday approved a $2 million agreement with newly established Community Labs to conduct mass coronavirus testing of students and staff at San Antonio ISD, Edgewood ISD, Harlandale ISD, Southside ISD, Southwest ISD, South San ISD, East Central ISD, Somerset ISD, and CAST schools.

The testing agreement does not include Northside ISD because the superintendent has not “really been engaging” with the County yet, said David Marquez, executive director of the Bexar County Economic Development Department. Once the process starts and Northside ISD can see how well the testing program works, Marquez told commissioners he’s confident the school district will show interest.

Community Labs, a nonprofit founded by local philanthropic organizations, is providing rapid-result, low-cost coronavirus testing of asymptomatic students and staff.

NISD spokesman Barry Perez said Wednesday the district, which has more than 102,000 students enrolled, was still evaluating the proposed testing program.

“I do know that there was some question around the number of tests that would need to be administered to have any kind of efficacy, those kinds of things,” Perez said.

He emphasized that this does not mean the school district won’t participate in the testing program at a later time. 

“That’s not to say that something wouldn’t be put in place later,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of, ‘What does it look like? How is it best done? How do we scale it appropriately for a district our size?’”

North East ISD had similar questions, spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said Thursday. The school district has more than 60,000 students enrolled across its campuses.

“We have not decided anything yet,” Chancellor said in an email. “We have asked how many tests would need to be administered for it to be an effective and informative result.”

Community Labs’ testing program uses an assurance testing approach by which people are tested regularly within a given group, so asymptomatic carriers of the virus can be identified quickly and isolated before they unknowingly spread it to others.

Each test costs an estimated $35, and Bexar County and Community Labs will split the cost, according to Marquez. Testing is scheduled to begin Nov. 2.

Last month, Community Labs began piloting its testing program at Somerset ISD, which has about 4,000 students. While the weekly tests are not mandatory, Somerset ISD officials have said the idea is to make parents more comfortable sending their kids back to school.

Participation in the testing program is also a factor for NISD in deciding whether to join, Perez said.

“You can’t force anyone to take a test,” he said. “And so you have to be mindful of the fact that you’re going to have folks who may not want to participate. What do you do about that? I think that goes back to the whole notion of how many tests would need to be given to have this be efficient and effective.”

About 43 percent of the student population has returned to NISD campuses, Perez said, but that could change after the district sends out its third survey mid-November to families asking how they would like their children to attend – in person or virtually. 

This article has been updated to correct that North East ISD is not a part of Bexar County’s  testing agreement with Community Labs, contrary to information presented to Bexar County commissioners.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.