The San Antonio Independent School District will soon be able to offer free coronavirus testing to all staff members and students for the rest of the school year, thanks to an expanded partnership with Community Labs.

The school district plans to roll out the testing at 92 campuses during the next two weeks, adding 35 sites to its COVID-19 testing program, Superintendent Pedro Martinez said. SAISD began working with Community Labs in November at 17 schools located in zip codes with the highest coronavirus positivity rates.

The increased testing comes as Bexar County’s average COVID-19 positivity rate hit 23 percent on Monday. Martinez said the testing will enable SAISD to allow more students on campus once the positivity rate starts to decline, which in turn will help the local economy recover.

“It’s very difficult to open up a large economy if your schools are closed,” he said. “In order for us to have schools open, for them to be safe, COVID testing is just an essential element.”

Community Labs is not only expanding its footprint in San Antonio but across the state, as well. The San Antonio nonprofit recently contracted with the state to offer coronavirus testing to first responders in cities that are considered COVID-19 “hotspots,” starting with El Paso and Laredo, President Sal Webber said.

Within San Antonio, Community Labs plans to partner with four other school districts, but Webber declined to identify those districts until the partnerships have been finalized. Community Labs already offers COVID-19 testing to Somerset, Southwest, Southside, Harlandale, Edgewood, and East Central ISDs.

Webber said the nonprofit started offering testing in these underserved school districts because they have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and have the lowest rates of in-person attendance, between 25 and 30 percent. Many students struggle with remote learning, so school districts have started urging families to send their children in person to improve their grades.

“We knew we could make the biggest impact there,” he said.

Martinez said families and staff expressed a sense of relief when he told them that more testing would be available in the coming weeks. Parents felt less anxious about sending their children to school, and staff members felt more comfortable going to work.

“This just adds another layer of safety,” Martinez said. “We became part of the solution. Not only are we catching cases, but we’re also able to do the contact tracing. This is a great resource for us to be able to identify both staff and students that potentially could be positive.”

San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez. Credit: San Antonio Report File Photo

SAISD students must have parental or guardian consent to get tested, Martinez said. The tests are voluntary for students attending school in person and for all students participating in extracurricular activities. Students and staff administer the tests themselves, swabbing the inside of each nostril for 10 to 20 seconds. School nurses and Community Labs staff will oversee the testing, and results should be back between 15 and 24 hours later.

Test results are sent directly to parents and staff members, Martinez said. The district is notified if someone tests positive so it can conduct contact tracing.

Webber said the PCR tests, which are considered the “gold standard” of COVID-19 tests, can detect the new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus that first appeared in the United Kingdom. Community Labs is in the process of selecting test samples to see if the variant is present in San Antonio.

Partnering with more school districts to implement COVID-19 testing programs fits into Community Labs’ long-term vision to test as many people as possible, Webber said. The nonprofit can conduct up to 14,000 tests per day, but the most it has done in one day so far is 8,000. Webber expects that number to increase to more than 10,000 per day the week of Jan. 11, when all school districts will have returned from winter break.

By the end of the month, Community Labs will be able to conduct 24,000 tests per day, Webber said. The long-term goal is to test 100,000 people a day.

“That was a crazy dream in the beginning, but as long as we’ve got the funding, I think that we can get there,” he said. “We’re on a mission.”

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.