York Academy implements new pool testing to track COVID-19 cases in schools

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch
York Academy Regional Charter School teacher Keri Schmid shows second-grader Samiha Storms how to apply a COVID-19 test Thursday, Feb 4, 2021. School nurses, Megan Halloran, background left, and Marla Urey visited the classroom while students did the testing which is part of the new pandemic protocols implemented at the York City school. Bill Kalina photo

York Academy Regional Charter School is taking a unique approach to test students and staff for COVID-19. 

The school reopened both its buildings for four days a week in February and is testing students and staff in groups by their classroom. CEO Angela Sugarek said she is not aware of any other schools in Pennsylvania using this method. 

"I think Pennsylvania is behind the 8-ball," she said. 

Up to 35 students and staff in one classroom can take the test in one group. The test, administered once a week, uses a self-administered nasal swab and can indicate within two days whether there is a positive COVID-19 case within that group, Sugarek said. 

The charter school tested this method among staff the week before the school reopened and found one employee who did not exhibit symptoms until a few days later, Sugarek said. In the first week back at school last week, she said the tests found two classrooms with positive cases. 

The pool tests cost $100 for each group, Sugarek said, while individual COVID-19 tests cost $100 per person. To save money, she said when the school identifies a positive pool, they instruct the people in that pool to quarantine and give them the same test again in smaller groups. When they find the smaller group with a positive case, then they administer the individual tests.

Sugarek said she expects the charter will pay about $4,000 per week for the pool testing, using funds the charter school received through the CARES Act. 

The test, provided by a diagnostic center based in Boston, is about 99% effective, Sugarek said. 

"It's the gold standard of testing," she said. 

The individual rapid tests are less effective, Sugarek said, at about 60% accurate. 

The charter school is able to administer the tests to about 650 students and 120 staff across its two buildings within the first hour of the school day. Prior to reopening the schools, Sugarek said the school operated fully remotely. 

The charter school began the school year with some students attending school in-person under supervision, while staff worked remotely, she said. Officials transitioned both schools to fully remote in November when York County moved into substantial COVID-19 spread. 

When the county moves back to a moderate level of spread, Sugarek said she plans to return both buildings to in-person learning five days a week. 

York Academy Regional Charter School second-grader Samiha Storms self-administers a COVID-19 test Thursday, Feb 4, 2021 at the city school. The testing is part of the new pandemic protocols at the academy. Bill Kalina photo

Wednesdays remain remote learning days in the schedule and are used to deep clean both buildings. Sugarek said about eight staff complete the cleaning, using a fog machine to clear  the air and wiping down all surfaces. 

Sugarek described the cleaning as "theater," as she is not sure how necessary the process is because officials don't know how long COVID-19 lives on surfaces. Regardless, she said it acts as "an extra level of protection."

The charter school's cleaning plan is more similar to what other school districts are doing, Sugarek said. She said she is not aware of any districts administering COVID-19 tests to students or staff. 

Officials from the Dover Area School District, Spring Grove Area School District, West Shore School District, Central York School District and York Suburban School District confirmed that their districts do not provide COVID-19 tests for students or staff. Central York and York Suburban provide symptom screenings, while Bradly Perkins with Dover said staff complete daily symptom surveys and students must complete the survey if they return to the classroom before 14 days of quarantining. 

York Academy Regional Charter School second-grade teacher Keri Schmid, left, shares COVID-19 tests and rosters with school nurses Megan Halloran and Marla Urey, right, after students in Schmid's classroom self-administered the test Thursday, Feb 4, 2021. The testing is part of the new pandemic protocols implemented at the York City school. Bill Kalina photo

Sugarek said the problem with symptom screenings is that those only catch people who are exhibiting symptoms. Every individual who tested positive for COVID-19 under York Academy's pool tests did not show symptoms at the time of the tests. 

"If you don't have symptoms, you can still spread the virus," Sugarek said. 

Returning to school with the pool tests received positive reactions from students and parents, Sugarek said. Even Sugarek's son, who is in second grade and doesn't usually enjoy school, was "over the moon" about returning to the classroom.

"It has been just a joy," Sugarek said.