Pilot program tests air and wastewater for COVID at Menlo Park City School District

It's a cutting edge approach to COVID testing — the Menlo Park City School District is part of a pilot program to test air and wastewater at their schools.

District officials say the hope is to help not only their own students, but the greater good as well.

At the Menlo Park City School District, they're not only testing students for COVID, but they're also sampling the air and wastewater at school and testing that too.

It's part of a new pilot program with a company called Concentric by Ginkgo and with Stanford.

"We reached out to Stanford University and said hey can we be a part of this? Are you interested in learning about what's happening at K-12 schools too?" says Erik Burmeister, Superintendent of the Menlo Park City School District.

They were. 

For now, the pilot study is small with Menlo as the sole participant. And they're only testing at two of their schools, Hillview Middle and Laurel School Lower Campus. But the hope is by monitoring air and water, scientists can see COVID spikes or even new variants coming.

"So we would like to get to a place where we can provide Californians, and nationally, a sort of pathogen map to let folks know when things look good and when we need to take precautions," says Karen Murphy, regional GM for Concentric West.

Researchers say environmental testing also has the advantage of being less invasive, no swabs needed.

"Hopefully maybe this will become sort of a normal way of testing for pathogens at a school population," says Sooyeol Kim, PhD student at Stanford University School of Engineering, who is working on the wastewater portion of the program.

The air testing has only just begun, and they're still experimenting with what equipment works best. The wastewater sampling has been going on for a few weeks. 

Final results won't come until summer, but the school district is already getting helpful updates.

"So what we're seeing right now is we are seeing an uptick in the rates of COVID in our sewage. And how we responded is by reaching out to the community and saying now is the time to put a mask back on," says Burmeister.

The pilot program is expected to last eight weeks.