In an empty meeting room at Pre-K 4 SA’s South Education Center, Chief Communications Officer Paul Chapman took a swab and stuck it just inside his nose, swirling it around five times in each nostril. He placed the swab into a small vial, which would be tested for the novel coronavirus within 24 hours.

Chapman is one of about 150 of Pre-K 4 SA staff members tested for the virus on Friday. That day marked the first of many weekly coronavirus tests for Pre-K 4 SA staff, provided by nonprofit Community Labs, a local organization 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.

Community Labs recently began working with the City of San Antonio to test asymptomatic people for the coronavirus, and Trinity University also planned to announce a partnership Monday with Community Labs to provide regular testing on its campus, though details of that partnership were not provided Friday. Community Labs President Sal Webber said he was not sure how often students would receive testing at Trinity, but the majority of the college’s student body had been tested earlier this week ahead of the Thanksgiving break.

“We wanted to send everybody home with a negative COVID test so that they’re not passing anything on to their parents,” Webber said.

Though all Pre-K 4 SA staff members were given the opportunity to schedule a coronavirus test, not all did, Chapman said. But he predicted that more would opt in after seeing how quick and noninvasive the Community Labs test was.

“We’ve had a pretty good response, so I think we’ll have a few more people for future testing,” Chapman said.

Each Friday, Community Labs will dispatch people to test staff members at each of the four Pre-K 4 SA locations as well as at Gardendale Elementary, where Pre-K 4 SA practices are being implemented in a “replication site” on the West Side. The tests are paid for by the City of San Antonio at a cost of $35 each, Webber said.

So far, there’s no plan to test students alongside teachers, especially since prekindergarteners are not a significant source of coronavirus spread, Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray said.

“Increasingly we’re seeing young children are less likely to contract COVID than older children and much less likely than an adult,” Baray said. “We’ve had a few cases at Pre-K for SA where the parents had the virus but the child who was quarantining with parents never got it. That’s consistent with research. … We’re not sure why it is, but we know young children are much less likely to get COVID than children 10 and above.”

Pre-K 4 SA currently serves more than 1,000 students across its four locations, though before the pandemic that number was 2,000. Its class sizes have shrunk to maximize social distancing among children, and teachers also attend to remote learners at the same time, Baray said.

Students and teachers wear face masks, and sometimes face shields as well, Chapman said. The face shields come in handy when students need to see the shape of their teachers’ mouth during linguistics lessons.

Baray emphasized that consistent testing is only one tool to make sure pre-K students can continue to learn in person safely. The organization plans to keep its buildings open by maintaining coronavirus prevention protocols, she said.

“Last spring we closed because there was just so much uncertainty and we didn’t know what was required to make our building safe,” Baray said. “We now know what it takes. … It’s really the combination of approaches to keep the virus out of the building, to prevent spread if it gets in the building, and to respond quickly if it does spread.”

Pre-K 4 SA closed its East Education Center for a few days in October after four staff members and one child tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The facility has since reopened. 

If a staff member tests positive, they will be instructed to stay at home and quarantine while the rest of staff, and parents are notified, Baray said.

“That’s why we really were glad [testing] is happening on Friday – it gives us a little more time to make decisions about what needs to happen and determine whether there were any close contacts and who might need to quarantine,” she said.

The 80|20 Foundation, the Tobin Endowment, and Tullos Wells are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business and nonprofit members, click here.

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is a general assignment reporter at the San Antonio Report.