Walk-up COVID-19 testing at Roots Community Center on International Boulevard in East Oakland. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Facing mounting pressure from community members and parents to improve its COVID testing program, the Oakland Unified School District board approved a resolution Wednesday night to provide onsite testing at each of its campuses, every two weeks.

The resolution is a scaled-back version of a proposal put forward by District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson, which called for weekly testing.

According to the approved resolution, all students and school staff will be offered a test but participation will be voluntary. Testing will ramp up over time, with immediate priority given to those who are unvaccinated and to schools in areas that have been most impacted by COVID-19. The resolution, introduced by District 1 Director Sam Davis, calls on OUSD to increase its capacity for testing by taking steps to train and deploy existing school staff, and through additional county and state partnerships.

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Up to now, OUSD’s testing strategy has involved several components: There are 10 community testing hubs across the district where students and families can get tested, and all schools were supplied with home testing kits that students and families can request. When the district receives confirmation of a positive case at a school, rapid response teams are sent to that school to test everyone who was in close contact with that individual, and unvaccinated students who were exposed are tested twice a week for two consecutive weeks. 

But throughout Wednesday night’s school board meeting, community members spoke about the challenges they’ve faced trying to get themselves and their children tested: a shortage of tests at some campuses and testing sites, being turned away from testing sites if they aren’t considered a “close contact” of someone who tested positive, and rapid response teams taking days to arrive at school campuses. Earlier this week, district officials also said that several positive test results that caused some classrooms to quarantine were not actually positive. 

“I want to own the fact that our testing program is not where we want it to be,” said Sailaja Suresh, who leads the district’s COVID response strategy. “We want it to get better, and we want to do right by our kids, families, and staff.”

The district is working to hire more testers, get more tests, and expand hours at the community test hubs, which currently operate two days a week from 8 or 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and are not open on weekends. 

OUSD administered 20,210 tests at 60 campuses (about 75% of district schools) during the first two weeks of school. The district contracts with Vestra Labs to provide staff and tests, and has also received COVID tests from the state. District officials are considering contracting with other providers to obtain more tests and staff, but scarcity appears to be an issue across the state, Suresh said.

“We did get asked by a local hospital if we had tests that we could give them,” she said. “There is a significant supply issue if a local health care agency is asking the local school district for tests.”

To implement weekly testing at all schools, the district would need to test about 40,000 people per week. To achieve that, Suresh said the district may have to curtail other efforts like the rapid response teams and community testing hubs. District staff estimated that it would cost at least $2 million to hire enough staff to do weekly testing, and at least an additional $6 million for the actual tests. 

“These are all worthwhile conversations for the directors to have in order to decide which trade-offs are worth it,” she said. “What do we want our end goal to be? What are we going to stop doing so that we can get to that end?”

Other links

Director Sam Davis’ amended resolution for biweekly testing

Director Mike Hutchinson’s original resolution to provide weekly testing

OUSD’s COVID case dashboard

OUSD’s COVID FAQ

Beginning Sept. 7, all unvaccinated staff, contractors and OUSD volunteers will be required to be vaccinated, or otherwise submit to weekly testing. 

The two student board directors, Samantha Pal and Natalie Gallegos Chavez, raised questions about the district’s overall COVID mitigation efforts not being able to contain outbreaks. Both student directors attend Oakland High School, which has had 35 cases since July 26, according to the district’s COVID case dashboard

“We should be worried about what homework assignment is due in the morning, instead of questioning how safe we are in schools,” said Student Director Pal, a senior. “We need to have more consistent testing at schools, because young people are walking the crowded halls, and they have been in close contact with other individuals. Young people are leaders, athletes, artists, and our loved ones, who may depend on getting tested because they have outside responsibilities, aside from showing up to school.” 

Pal added that testing should be mandatory and more accessible to students and staff, and questioned why OUSD would reopen for in-person school when the district can’t test everyone on a regular basis. Chavez, a junior, added that the district should implement more strict precautions because there are students, like herself, who don’t want to get vaccinated. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week approved the Pfizer vaccine for people 16 and older, and the school board may soon need to decide whether to implement a vaccine mandate for eligible students.

“Are we moving towards mandates for student vaccinations or not? Because we have to address what we’re going to do to bring down the community spread within the city,” said Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell. “I know there’s not anything that’s being brought forth tonight, but that also has to be something that we consider. The board needs to decide where they stand on that issue as well.”

The amended testing resolution was supported by five school board members, with directors Hutchinson and VanCedric Williams, who’d supported the original resolution for weekly testing, voting no. 

Hutchinson said he is working to partner directly with testing providers for the schools in his district, which includes Fruitvale. This week, Hutchinson had a meeting with several East Oakland community organizations, including the Native American Health Center, Roots Clinic, and La Clínica. His goal is to have health organizations “adopt” schools in District 5 and provide tests to students and families there. 

“I’m trying to put together a patchwork solution to cover all the schools in District 5. This is not what I do so I’m trying to lean on the expertise of some of the professionals who do this work,” Hutchinson said. “We have to find a workaround to provide these services.”

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.