Testing for America releases guide on how to reopen schools safely

Feb. 22, 2021
Weekly testing can reduce in-school infections by 50% when combined with masking and distancing

As school systems across the country are grappling with complex questions on how to reopen safely, Testing for America, with support from The Rockefeller Foundation and the Skoll Foundation, released a new how-to guide to reopen – and keep open – the more than 130,000 K-12 schools in the United States fulltime.

Published on the heels of new guidance by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Education, Covid-19 Testing in K-12 Settings: A Playbook for Educators and Leaders, which is based on real-world experiences of school district and public health leaders and provides detailed, step-by-step guidance to help educators, leaders, and their public health partners design and implement effective testing programs in schools. The Playbook builds off recent research funded by The Rockefeller Foundation which found that when added to mask wearing and social distancing, weekly testing of all students, teachers, and staff can reduce in-school infections by an estimated 50 percent.

"With new Covid-19 variants emerging and vaccines currently not available to children under the age of 16, testing provides a key frontline defense against asymptomatic spread and serves as an important safety net for America's schools," said Dr. Rajiv J. Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation. "This new K-12 Testing Playbook will help schools know who to test, when to test, and how to test, and give them the confidence they are opening as safely as possible."

"Even as we welcome the progress on vaccines to eventually control Covid-19--fast, inexpensive, and accurate testing combined with strict masking, appropriate ventilation, and social distancing policies are key to returning to normal in places where people congregate, from schools to workplaces and more," said Don Gips, chief executive of the Skoll Foundation. "We're pleased to be working with The Rockefeller Foundation to advance testing solutions that will get all of our kids back in schools safely."

Practical guidance to reopen schools:

"School leaders really are facing an outsized burden that goes well beyond the normal challenges of educating our children. This playbook gives them the detailed, step-by-step guidance they have asked for to open schools safely, based on evidence-based practices," said Dr. Blythe Adamson, economist, epidemiologist and advisor to Testing for America.

Informed by experiences from over 90 school district and public health leaders as well as a wide-range of research, evidence, and expert insights, the Playbook addresses the operational challenges and every-day realities of implementing a complex, logistical program in an easy-to-understand, practical guide. This includes:

  • Identifying partners: How to engage local public health authorities, healthcare providers, state and local governments, and community organizations to help inform testing strategy and secure additional staff and financial resources.
  • Designing a testing program: How to conduct a rigorous risk assessment to understand the likelihood of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, being introduced into the school environment and how it spreads; how to design a testing program based on the metrics to achieve and the risk of transmission in schools at the time; how to pick the right type of test that is most effective and feasible, and who and when to test.
  • Considerations for launching a program: How to collect consent, select testing vendors, and set up a testing sites; staffing needs; estimates on equipment and supply needs; logistics for sending samples to the labs and receiving results; guidance on how to report results and communicate to build trust before and during the testing program; operational workflows; and data management, privacy, and security.
  • Monitoring and evaluating effectiveness: Guidance on how to quantify the effectiveness of the testing program and identify areas for improvement to strengthen trust in the efficacy of the testing program.

To help operationalize the Playbook, The Rockefeller Foundation has commissioned Chiefs for Change, a network of school superintendents and state education leaders, to develop a suite of related Covid-19 testing tools and resources to support reopening plans. Today, Chiefs for Change is releasing the first set of materials that includes a project planning workbook and tabletop exercises to complement the Playbook.

"One year into this pandemic, we must allow teachers and children to safely return to their classrooms. Schools are some of the safest places in a community – and children need the face-to-face instruction and support they get when they attend school in person," said Mike Magee, chief executives of Chiefs for Change. "The Rockefeller Foundation's playbook is an essential guide that can help districts reopen and stay open."

Support from local leaders:

School district and public health leaders are instrumental to providing real-world insights on best practices to effectively integrate testing into school settings for K-12 students, teachers, and staff. Over the course of the last several months, these leaders have shared their experiences through Chiefs for Change and during the Foundation's Cross-City Learning Group, a community of practice that receives guidance on testing from experts in public health and diagnostics:

  • "Schools are ready to get their students back in the classroom, but are concerned about keeping the kids, teachers and staff safe. The K-12 Playbook gives them practical solutions to do both." – Dr. Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department
  • "The Cross-City Learning Group has been invaluable in developing K-12 testing and control initiatives for the state of Illinois. We appreciate the camaraderie and The Rockefeller Foundation's leadership in bringing us together." – Dr. Rebecca Lee Smith, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • "Participation in The Rockefeller Foundation's Cross-City Learning Group has been invaluable to Louisville's Department of Public Health and Wellness and Jefferson County Public Schools' work to support re-opening out schools. This pandemic has challenged cities and school systems across the nation. Working collaboratively through The Rockefeller Foundation with our peers to identify barriers to school re-opening, and then crafting real world solutions into the playbook for implementation, has made a real different for our schools, teachers, and the entire Louisville Community." – Bill Altman, consultant in the Louisville Department of Public Health and Wellness
  • "Here in San Antonio, we've seen firsthand how rigorous Covid-19 testing, combined with other health measures, are helping to protect our students and staff. Through routine testing, we have been able to catch even asymptomatic carriers and stay ahead of the virus. The Rockefeller Foundation's playbook contains important information that can help districts across the country as they develop Covid testing programs and partnerships." – Pedro Martinez, San Antonio Independent School District superintendent; Chiefs for Change Board Chair
  • "In Rhode Island, Covid testing has been a key factor in allowing us to bring students and teachers back into the classroom safely. We know schools are where our kids thrive. This playbook will help America's school systems set up testing programs that, along with other health protocols, can help to reduce the spread of the virus." – Angélica Infante-Green, Rhode Island commissioner of elementary and secondary education
  • "Instituting comprehensive testing strategies in public schools should be a priority nationwide, but it is a deeply complicated task. We are grateful for the work of The Rockefeller Foundation to put together such thoughtful and helpful guidance to support schools across the country." – Dr. Henderson Lewis, Jr., NOLA public schools superintendent

This practical Playbook demonstrates that it is possible to test students at least once a week and teachers and staff twice a week, which The Rockefeller Foundation recommended in December alongside other mitigation measures to get students and teachers back to in-person instruction. Additionally, the Playbook serves as a repository of hundreds of evidence-based resources for school reopening, including:

  • Preliminary findings from Mathematica about six pilot programs, funded by the Foundation and facilitated by a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services;
  • A January 2021 landscape report by RAND Corporation on early insights from testing programs implemented by schools;
  • Testing protocols developed by the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in October 2020.

The Playbook is funded with a grant provided by the Skoll Foundation to the U.S Covid-19 Response and Recovery Initiative of RF Catalytic Capital, Inc. (RFCC), the public charity that The Rockefeller Foundation launched in September 2020. The RFCC is a new innovative tool for foundations, impact investors, businesses, and governments to combine their resources to scale funding solutions and bring about transformational change. RFCC has also provided a $30 million Advance Market Commitment to scale up participating States' pandemic testing needs through the State and Territory Alliance on Testing and is launching a $5 million accelerator in Africa to power agriculture and protective foods to small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Testing for America is a nonprofit organization established by leading scientists, epidemiologists, and business leaders whose goal is to safely return Americans to schools, work, and society through abundant Covid-19 testing. Testing for America is a nonprofit LLC structured within the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology (501c3). For more information: www.testingforamerica.org

The Rockefeller Foundation advances new frontiers of science, data, and innovation to solve global challenges related to health, food, power, and economic mobility.  As a science-driven philanthropy focused on building collaborative relationships with partners and grantees, The Rockefeller Foundation seeks to inspire and foster large-scale human impact that promotes the well-being of humanity throughout the world by identifying and accelerating breakthrough solutions, ideas, and conversations.  For more information, sign up for our newsletter at rockefellerfoundation.org and follow us on Twitter @RockefellerFdn.

The Skoll Foundation, founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jeff Skoll in 1999, invests in, connects, and celebrates social entrepreneurs and the innovators who help them solve the world's most pressing problems. To learn more and subscribe to our newsletter, visit skoll.org and follow us on Twitter @SkollFoundation.

Chiefs for Change is a nonprofit, bipartisan network of diverse state and district education chiefs dedicated to preparing all students for today's world and tomorrow's through deeply committed leadership. Chiefs for Change advocates for policies and practices that are making a difference for students, and builds a pipeline of talented, diverse Future Chiefs ready to lead major school systems.


Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
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