The Rainier School District was one of the first in Thurston County to bring students back to hybrid learning about a month ago after they got the OK from the county public health officer.
If you ask Superintendent Bryon Bahr how it was they were able to pull it off so quickly, he’ll give credit to the small population. At only 891 students, according to the most recent Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction data, Rainier is among the smallest school districts in the county.
“We’re much smaller and nimbler to be able to maneuver quicker than they are,” Bahr said of other districts. “We had a plan, and so we watched what the Thurston County Health Department said, and when they hit 200 (cases per 100,000 people over two weeks), we decided to go ahead and go with it because that’s what the board wanted to do.”
And, despite the quick return, teachers have largely had confidence in the process. Bahr said that’s in large part due to a pilot testing project now entering its 12th week.
Rainier was one of the first 11 districts chosen to collaborate with the state Department of Health and the Health Commons Project to establish a school-based testing program for the community. That pilot project is now used in more than 80 districts across 27 counties.
Bahr said they’ve been testing an average of 22 people a week. As of Friday, March 12, a total of 225 staff members have been tested since the start of the pilot program, and only three of those tests have so far come back positive.
“It’s been accepted by the staff in a positive manner. It helps with a little bit of the anxiety we had at first, just to know that they’re safe, the people around them have been safe. To me, it’s just another tool to have against the anxiety of the unknown,” Bahr said.
That reassurance, he said, was key when they started moving back to in-person learning. Since educators became eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations, Bahr notes, they have been using it less.
“I think because a lot of staff are getting their vaccines, I think the urgency to get testing is dissipating,” he said.
At least 50 percent of his staff members are so far vaccinated from COVID-19, Bahr said. That’s allowed the district to start testing symptomatic students with parents’ permission.
Every Thursday at 1 p.m., the school district hosts a testing clinic. Any person associated with the district — employees, students or family members — are allowed to come in and take a self-administered oral swab. The process takes less than five minutes, Bahr said.
Then, shortly following the testing clinic, Bahr said he rushes over to the UPS store in Yelm to ship off the tests. By Saturday, Bahr and those who took the test are notified of their results. Bahr said Thurston County Public Health and Social Services assists with contact tracing if a person tests positive.
The district’s weekly clinic is also the only free weekly COVID-19 testing site of its kind held within city limits. The program should be funded by the state for another two years, likely far longer than its demand will necessitate, Bahr said.
Sarah Sutton, director of school programs at the Health Commons Project, an integrated care network contracted recently by the state Department of Health, said their services for design and implementation of school-based testing is free to any district within Washington state.
“The hope is that any school district that wants to offer school-based testing is able to do so,” Sutton said. “We’re looking to play off schools strengths and help them address any barriers they might have. We’re looking to really work on a tailored program.”
Yelm Community Schools also recently signed up to implement a testing program similar to Rainier’s.
School districts large and small have been signing on to host these programs, Sutton said. A strength of rural districts hosting these sites is that they’re usually some of the heaviest-lifting institutions in their communities
“I’ve actually found that the rural school districts are able to implement with pretty minimal support from Health Commons,” Sutton said.
She added that testing programs do reduce overall staff anxiety of returning to the classroom, and it also reduces the number of days students are away from the classroom. These programs allow students and staff a quick confirmation on if they have contracted the virus, and it overall reduces the likelihood that they’re screened out for 14 days without having the virus.
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