Despite low participation rate, pool testing continues at SRHS

POOL TESTING CONTINUES. SRHS math teacher Eric Bohn distributes nasal swabs to students in his third period class who have opted in to the pool testing program. Bohn expressed a possible source of concern for the program, saying “With an opt-in policy and relative low participation, it’s at least reasonable to ask if we might not be testing a part of the population that most needs testing?” The program, which tests students every other Monday and is intended to provide information about spread on campus, has no set end date.

Article and photo by Molly Murphey

On the first day of pool testing at Santa Rosa High School, more than half of the students in math teacher Eric Bohn’s third-period class had not opted into the program. They stared through the windows as their embarrassed classmates swirled swabs in their noses before depositing them in a plastic tube and entering the classroom. This phenomenon has been repeated in classrooms across campus every other Monday since the program’s start. 

The term ‘pool testing’ began swirling around the SRHS campus in late January when Principal Dr. Kimberly Clissold asked families to opt in to the program via her weekly announcements. According to the CDC, pool testing means “combining the same type of specimen from several people and conducting one NAAT laboratory test on the combined pool of specimens to detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Pooled tests that return positive results will require each specimen in the pool to be retested individually to determine which individual(s) are positive.” This strategy was adopted to save the school time and money. 

One of the challenges of pool testing was that Clissold’s request may have gone unnoticed by parents who don’t stay on top of their inbox. Two months into the program, 825 out of 1758 students (or about 47%) have opted in, according to Dr. Isaac Estrada, assistant principal and lead COVID-19 coordinator. 

When asked about the pool testing program’s efficacy, Estrada said in an email, “the pool testing program has helped significantly in COVID-19 mitigation. Our school district and board has been very supportive and I trust that their future decisions will have a positive impact on the health and well being of our school staff and students.” Estrada said that while pool testing has no set end date, “[the SRCS] school board communicated that if our county indicators continue to improve we may eliminate pool testing.” He said that the district will make a recommendation for the board’s approval when they feel it is appropriate to discontinue the program.

When asked for a statistical perspective on the program, Bohn said in an email, “It’s not something I’ve studied, but I would think that in order for pool testing to be effective, you need an infection rate that is relatively low (otherwise you end up retesting everyone anyway) and participation from everyone… I don’t know anything about who is opting in and who is not, but we should know that anytime we use a voluntary response sample (like our pool testing) that there is bias in our results – meaning that the sample results are not likely representative of the population.” 

He added that whether or not the program is successful “depends on your goal – find out what’s going on with the school, identify some positive cases, make people feel safer – or some combination of these.”

SRHS has relaxed some COVID-19 precautions, as has Sonoma county, in response to plummeting infection rates, with some students and staff removing their masks after a school board decision to stop requiring them. However, the county’s numbers may misrepresent the true situation, and SRHS has experienced an uptick in COVID-19 quarantines since the start of April. 

With a low opt-in rate, the pool testing program is an imperfect, but still important tool for protecting the school community, which could be improved by more incentives for participation and better data transparency, giving families a more complete idea of COVID-19 spread on campus.

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