MARIN, Calif. - To keep kids in school, one Bay Area County is sending home free COVID test kits to students and staff. Nine schools in Marin County are part of a pilot program with the California Department of Health, that could become a model for schools across the state.
"This is going to be the future," said Mary Jane Burke, Superintendent of the Marin County Office of Education. "We're going to see the use of rapid antigen testing as the answer to helping our communities stay open, families feel safe."
Anyone with COVID symptoms can take the test at home and get the results within 15 minutes. The nine Marin County schools began the program about two weeks ago, sending more than 6,000 rapid antigen tests home. Some students and staff have already used them.
"One-hundred and sixty-seven tests returned so far," Burke said. "We've had just one positive case."
Many schools across the country are using rapid antigen tests as part of a policy called "Test to Stay" or "Modified Quarantine". If a student comes into contact with a positive COVID case, they can stay in class as long as they don't have symptoms and take a rapid test in the morning, before class.
"You test the child on a frequent basis to assure that child is uninfected, and keep him or her in school that day," said Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco.
Without rapid tests, students who have a COVID case in their class can be sent home, for a 10-day quarantine. They can return to class sooner if they can get their own test showing they are negative. But it's difficult and time-consuming to snag an appointment for a PCR test.
"As a parent, you're really in a bind," said parent Gerard Wiener, who has a 2nd grader and kindergartener in San Francisco Unified School District. His 2nd grader missed five days of school waiting for her test results to prove she was COVID negative.
"You don't know whether your kid has it (COVID). You don't know where to find a test, and even if you do find one, you're going to have to wait for the results, anyway," Wiener said.
Not all Bay Area School Districts have rapid antigen tests to offer.
"We would love to incorporate Rapid tests," said Alameda Unified School District Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi. "We haven't been able to get those from the state, despite having ordered them last spring."
Last week, President Biden announced a plan to utilize the Defense Production Act to make rapid antigen tests less expensive and more widely available.
To that, parents like Wiener say: "Yes! More testing, more tests. Get them in the hands of parents. Make our lives easier. Help us help everybody."
Burke said she's optimistic rapid antigen tests will become more widely available in the coming weeks.
The plan in Marin County is to expand their pilot program to families and staff in all public, private, and parochial schools in the county by November.