Somerset High School teachers and staff lined up early Wednesday morning along the bleachers in one half of the gym as they waited their turn for testing that would determine if they have the novel coronavirus.
Soon after, the school’s volleyball and football players gathered in socially distanced rows set off by cones typically used for the Bulldogs’ practice drills.
They were the first groups in the school to participate in a new program bringing mass testing for the coronavirus into the San Antonio area. Community Labs, a nonprofit founded by local philanthropic organizations, is providing rapid-result, low-cost coronavirus testing and selected the 4,000-student Somerset Independent School District to kick off its testing program.
The idea behind this kind of assurance testing is that by regularly testing people within a given group, schools and workplaces can quickly identify asymptomatic carriers of the virus and isolate them before it is unknowingly spread to others. As many as 50 percent of those who become infected do not show symptoms, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There are more than 5 million public school students in Texas, and as children return to school campuses for in-person instruction, the number of positive cases are expected to climb. As of Sept. 13, there were 995 positive cases among the statewide K-12 student population, and 792 cases among staff, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services, which has been tracking the numbers since Aug. 2.
Community Labs founder Graham Weston has said San Antonio-area schools will be prioritized as the program builds capacity. When fully implemented, Community Labs hopes to test up to 12,000 people a day.
The testing kickoff at Somerset High School was a test of sorts.
In its first rollout, Community Labs planned to test all teachers and faculty on the campus in rural southwestern Bexar County, along with about 150 student-athletes.
Within two weeks, the district will begin providing coronavirus testing in all of its seven schools, said Superintendent Saul Hinojosa, who was also tested Wednesday.
“Sometime tomorrow we’re going to calibrate how it went [today], what we could change, processes, procedures, and so forth,” he said. “Right now we’re just looking at how long it takes to do the test.”
With two testing stations set up in the gym, it took only minutes for each teacher and student to hand their consent forms to a technician, use a swab to collect a sample from the inside of each nostril for five seconds each, and insert the swab into a test tube that will be sent to BioBridge Global’s lab in Northwest San Antonio.
English teacher Christopher Perry wore a black neck gaiter over his mouth and nose while he waited in line for the test. He feels it’s just one more way to keep everyone safe from the virus while also resuming school.
“There are lots of other diseases going on [and] this one runs more rampant, but we just can’t stop society. We can’t keep their education on hold,” Perry said. “So we need to keep those engines moving and keep their futures alive.”
Spanish teacher Esperanza Casey, whose husband is the school’s athletic director, said their two daughters who play on the volleyball team are back in their classrooms and would be tested. “Our district made the decision that if you didn’t come to school, you couldn’t do extracurriculars,” Casey said.
Somerset also is mandating that students who participate in extracurricular activities, such as sports and band, be tested.
Casey said the students who are on campus, currently about 575, are being diligent about wearing face masks and washing their hands. “We’re doing our part and they’re doing their part, and I think everyone’s just happy to be back,” Casey said.
Ruth Rodriguez, a paraprofessional who works in the life skills unit assisting students with learning disabilities, said she trusts the district’s decision to offer the testing. Her daughter, a freshman at Somerset, also will be tested.
“It makes me feel better,” Rodriguez said. “In a time where there’s no control, it makes me feel like I have control of something.”
The student-athletes tested on Wednesday represented a group that was logistically easier to test first because their first period is dedicated to practice, but also one that is at greater risk because they’re in close contact with one another, said Principal Justin Saunders.
“Nothing is foolproof, but this is a good way to get started,” he said.
Test results ready within 24 hours will be emailed to the person tested and to the district nurse, Saunders said. If a test is positive, the individual is instructed to see a doctor for another test to confirm infection and to quarantine for at least 10 days before returning to campus.
But Saunders said the goal of testing isn’t only about getting students back to school.
“I think more than anything what we’re trying to do is make people feel comfortable, that’s the main goal,” he said. “Everybody has some apprehension … So if I can have a better understanding of whether I have it or if I don’t, that’s going to put me at ease, and I hope that’s what it does for parents, too.”
A few parents have declined to have their children tested or to return for in-person instruction.
“I just told them, whatever your decision is, that’s the right decision – you’re parents and you do what is best for your kids,” he said. “If they want to do the screener [test], we’d love for them to do it. If they adamantly do not want to do it, I understand … and that’s why we’re not making it mandatory.”
Ty Denton, a sophomore, stood in line at the gym for the coronavirus testing with football teammate Koal Detmer, a junior.
Both said that when they first heard about the test, they thought it was a good idea but worried that a false positive could shut down the school or pause the football season.
“I just never really been worried too much about it,” Detmer said. “[We] just maintain our social distancing and [wear] the mask – it’s all right.”