HCHF to offer free COVID-19 testing in schools

  • HCHF will begin offering free COVID-19 tests to students and staff at Highlands School the week of Sept. 14.
    HCHF will begin offering free COVID-19 tests to students and staff at Highlands School the week of Sept. 14.

As Macon County schools continue to battle COVID-19 infections among students and staff members, the Highlands Cashiers Health Foundation has proposed a new testing program to hopefully stop the spread of the virus in school settings.

On Aug. 21 the foundation announced that it would be initiating a free COVID-19 testing program for all students, faculty and staff at Highlands School, Summit Charter and Blue Ridge School.

The voluntary program will be available to any students, faculty and staff who choose to participate beginning the week of Sept. 14.

“We are aiming to minimize the risk of COVID-19 in our schools and the community, and thereby increase confidence for safe in-school learning,” said Dr. Richard Ellin, HCHF board member and leader of the school testing project. “In addition, keeping the risk of COVID-19 transmission low allows the economy to remain open, helps businesses thrive and allows people to remain employed. This program benefits the entire community, not just the schools.”

Ellin added that the testing program is the first of its kind in North Carolina and one of the first in the entire country.

“The only similar program I am aware of is one in Los Angeles, California, which is the second largest school district in the nation,” Ellin said. “They aren’t testing every person who enters the school, but rather a random cross-section of their students and teachers.”

The vast testing endeavor includes administering COVID-19 tests for up to 1200 students, faculty, and support staff on a weekly basis at three schools. The testing project is planned to continue weekly through December 18 except for Thanksgiving week, provided in-school learning continues.

Ellin noted that in order to save on the number of tests needed, that classes will be “pool tested.” The pool-testing model works particularly well in elementary school grades where students do not change classes.

“What pool testing allows us to do is to take a nasal swab from each student and the teacher in each class and run all those swabs through one COVID-19 test,” Ellin said. “If the entire pool comes back negative, we know that the entire class is negative. If the pool comes back positive, each individual sample will be tested to determine which person is positive.”

Students in middle and high school grades, where students change classes and thus have different classmates and teachers throughout the course of a school day, will be tested individually.

The testing program came from a meeting of the HCHF board prior to the beginning of the school year, according to Ellin.

“We thought, ‘What can we do to help our students and teachers,’” Ellin said. “Providing testing seemed like a natural fit since we had already conducted some free community testing events in Highlands and Cashiers during the pandemic.”

Ellin added that testing students and teachers once per week proved to be the best model for both school and testing lab logistics.

“I spoke with two of the leading infectious disease experts that I could find and they both said the same thing, ‘ If you can’t test at least once a week, it isn’t worth doing,’” Ellin said. “As testing technology continues to improve, we may be able to test more often, but we are confident that once a week testing will catch positive cases early and allow for those individuals to properly quarantine until they can recover.”

Mountain Park Urgent Care will administer the molecular PCR tests using nasal swabs (not the deep nasal pharyngeal method).  Results are expected within one to three days.

“We look forward to implementing this aggressive COVID-19 testing program for our students, faculty and service personnel, along with the mitigation strategies already set in motion,” Highlands Principal Brian Jetter said. “The program will unquestionably make it safer for ongoing in-classroom learning, which is our ultimate goal. My sincere gratitude goes to the foundation for this extraordinarily generous action.