Bexar County commissioners voted Tuesday to grant an additional $1 million to BioBridge Global’s Community Labs to continue coronavirus testing on students and staff in local schools.

Community Labs has administered more than 274,000 tests in more than 200 schools in Bexar County, the organization’s president Sal Webber said Tuesday. Community Labs regularly tests students and staff; officials from San Antonio, Edgewood, and Somerset ISDs told commissioners that students who attend school in person are tested weekly. 

“The pandemic has scared everybody: our teachers, our staff, our bus drivers, our custodians,” said Olga Moucoulis, Edgewood’s executive director of industry and community partnerships. “We lost a few of our employees over this pandemic. But what this has done, it’s given everybody a sense of security. … We have done over 33,000 tests since November.”

Providing regular coronavirus testing in Edgewood is crucial because more than 94% of students in the district are economically disadvantaged and students attending school virtually have more challenges when learning, Moucoulis said. About 40% of Edgewood’s students are attending class in person, which means more than half of the student population is still logging on remotely. Many students also may lack reliable access to the internet, she said.

“I ask that we can continue this because we do need our kids back in our classrooms,” Moucoulis said. “… Our students need to be with us in school to learn and the digital divide is tremendous. Them being face to face with our students and staff, there’s nothing like it.”

Community Labs was started by Graham Weston, former CEO and chairman of Rackspace Hosting and founder of the 80|20 Foundation; J. Bruce Bugg Jr., chairman and trustee of the Tobin Endowment; and Tullos Wells, managing director of the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation. Webber stressed that Community Labs runs on thin margins. The nonprofit charges Bexar County $35 per coronavirus test, a fraction of what a commercially available PCR (polymerase chain reaction) coronavirus tests costs, he said.

The positivity rate of the schools that Community Labs tests currently sits at 0.7%, Webber said.

“That’s probably been our biggest [lesson] in all of the testing that we’ve done,” he said. “We thought we were going to see a much higher positivity rate. Turns out that, with the discipline of the schools, wearing masks, social distancing, and testing, we’ve been able to keep the positivity rate as low as any group that you’ll see in the county.”

BioBridge Global Vice President of Scientific Affairs Scott Jones holds a vial that will be used in the administration of COVID-19 tests. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio

Somerset Superintendent Saul Hinojosa said in his 4,000-student school district, 81% of students are already back in the classroom, and continuing regular coronavirus testing will help more students return in person. Somerset ISD was the first to use Community Labs when the nonprofit launched in September.

“What we’ve seen is when we started the year, there was a profound difference in student achievement between our students who were attending face-to-face instruction and those who were attending virtually,” Hinojosa said. “Our virtual students were struggling; we had about a 75% failure rate. So testing our community has had a profound impact.”

About 40% of San Antonio ISD students have returned to the classroom, said Toni Thompson, the district’s associate superintendent of human resources. Since the district started working with Community Labs, SAISD has tested 133,000 students and staff for coronavirus.

“We know that students will not be eligible en masse to get the vaccines until much later, especially young children, but at least the testing helps us feel that we’re doing everything that we can to bring students back in school and give parents an opportunity to work and to be contributing members of society,” Thompson said.

Commissioners voted in December to give Community Labs $1 million to continue testing efforts at schools. Tuesday’s action added another $1 million to that agreement, upping the total to $2 million, said David Marquez, executive director of the Bexar County Economic Development Department.

“That should carry them for the balance of this school year,” he said.

The county will look into seeking reimbursement for the testing expenses in the recently signed American Rescue Plan Act, Marquez said. Bexar County expects to receive more than $388 million from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill.

Commissioners also approved a $250,000 contract with Guidehouse Inc., an international consulting company that has previously worked with Travis, Harris, and Tarrant counties. Guidehouse consultants will help the county spend federal coronavirus relief dollars within federal guidelines and as efficiently as possible. The contract lasts for 90 days, but commissioners can extend the contract’s length or monetary amount if needed.

Having experienced consultants like the ones at Guidehouse will help the county maximize the use of its federal coronavirus relief funding and identify other places to draw financial relief from, County Manager David Smith said.

“It’s not just our $388 million, it’s $1.9 trillion,” Smith said. “And we need to understand who all is getting money [and] all those different funding sources, [like] state funding for testing.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.