“Who doesn’t love a nasal swab in the morning?” asked Jen Lokey, Mountain Middle School’s instructional guide, as she greeted sixth graders as they arrived for school Tuesday morning.
Strangely enough, the kids didn’t seem to mind beginning the day with a probe up their nose to test for COVID-19.
Beginning last week, one grade a day at the Durango charter school gets a rapid test nasal swab first thing in the morning in an effort to catch anyone who is an asymptomatic carrier of the virus.
Tuesday was the sixth graders turn.
“You know if you are safe or not. You know you don’t have COVID. I think it’s an option that helps keep everyone safe,” said Jed Lawler, 12, one of 60 sixth graders given the rapid test Tuesday morning.
The rapid test has become part of the morning routine at the school, where every student is checked for fever and asked if they feel any symptoms of COVID-19 before they enter the building.
After the initial screening, all the students from one grade are funneled into the school’s auditorium and also administered the rapid nasal swab tests.
Mountain Middle has 1,200 rapid tests available, and Head of School Shane Voss said, “Why not use them?”
The goal is to catch asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers before they sit in class in a confined space and transmit the virus to other students, forcing an entire class to quarantine.
“The main thing we want is to keep the school open and the kids in class, and generally kids this age are asymptomatic,” Voss said.
Julie Cifuni, the school nurse, said at the start of the school year the school was offering a PCR test to students, parents, teachers and staff members to check for COVID-19 but the results took at least 36 hours to get back.
With the nasal swab, Cifuni knows within 15 minutes if a student has tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Testing procedures have gradually become less onerous as well. Initially, parents had to be present when students were given a PCR test.
Now, with the rapid tests, only parent approval is needed for testing. Mountain Middle has 240 students and so far only three parents have opted out of the nasal swab tests.
Cifuni said fewer than five positive tests have been recorded at Mountain through COVID-19 rapid nasal swab tests.
If a student tests positive, Cifuni said Mountain Middle School offers curbside testing to parents when they come to pick up their child.
Voss said: “It’s become part of our wellness check-in screening, and it’s been incredibly successful. Wednesday we caught an asymptomatic student who would have gone to class and could have spread COVID pretty rapidly through our school. So we were able to send that one student home, and we have one quarantine versus having to quarantine all the students in that class.”
After students are tested, they gather outside to wait for results of their nasal swabs.
“We’re all negative,” Gary Livick, dean of students, announced to the class. “This is the one test we like to fail,” he said.
Minimizing quarantines keeps students in class, which is especially helpful with Mountain’s project-based learning model, but it’s also helpful to parents, Voss said.
“COVID has been pretty hard on parents,” he said. “They have to find child care if their kid has to stay home or they have to stay home from work. This whole thing has been stressful for everybody.”
Studies are ongoing now to see if the COVID-19 vaccines are safe for children younger than 16.
Currently, the Pfizer vaccination is the only one available to 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds, but Pfizer has requested the Food and Drug Administration approve expanded use of its vaccine to adolescents from 12 to 15.
This summer, Voss is hopeful vaccines will be approved for all school-age children so that next year all students can come to school inoculated against COVID-19.
“I would hate for us to still be dealing with this for a third year,” he said.