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The Learning Curve: San Diego Unified Schools with Higher Poverty Are Testing for COVID Less

Central Elementary / Photo by Dustin Michelson

COVID-19 testing in San Diego Unified schools isn’t happening where it’s needed most, according to a new analysis by Voice of San Diego.

Schools with higher levels of poverty tested far fewer students than low-poverty schools, the most recent districtwide testing and income data show. Schools in the most high-income areas in the district tested on average 99 students and staff members last week. Schools in the lowest-income areas tested more than three times less, just 30 on average.

The more children are tested, the easier it is to keep them in school, district officials have repeatedly said. It helps them limit quarantines for students who come into contact with others who get the virus. And it helps stop the spread of the virus before it starts. As long as schools in high-poverty areas are testing less, students in those schools will be more vulnerable to outbreaks and could end up getting sent home more frequently.

Several of those schools in low-income areas performed no tests whatsoever last week ­— including Central Elementary, which was formerly run by Cindy Marten, who is now the deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Education and previously served as superintendent of San Diego Unified.

You can see all the data here. [1]

For a district that frequently trumpets its commitment to equity, the results are highly inequitable. COVID-19 has ravaged low-income and Latino communities in San Diego ­— and yet those communities appear to have less access to tests than richer communities.

The trends should be the opposite, said school board president Richard Barrera — schools with higher levels of poverty should be doing more tests.

“I appreciate you bringing this up,” said Barrera. “The emphasis from the district is always ramp up first in communities with the highest rates [of COVID.]”

There are two limiting factors to explain why schools might not be performing more tests, said Barrera.

One, students must opt into the district’s free testing program. That means parents must fill out an application saying they want their child to be tested. Barrera said it’s possible fewer parents have opted in at low-income schools.

But there have also been difficulties ramping up to full testing capability, said Barrera. Two outside operators — UC San Diego and Responsive Lab Partners — perform the tests each week on San Diego Unified campuses. But operators, so far, can’t test everyone who has signed up to be tested.

“The limiting factor is vendors being able to hire enough people to do the testing,” said Barrera.

About 33,000 people in the district have signed up to take part in the free weekly testing, Barrera said. But last week the district only performed 10,779 tests, according to its testing dashboard [2].

“Right now, if we were able to test the 30,000 plus that opted in, I think that would be strong. We were testing fewer than 1,500 kids a week in the spring,” he said.

The district has roughly 99,000 students and 14,000 employees.

For the time being — “knock on wood,” said Barrera — the district has very few COVID-19 cases. According to the dashboard, there are just 123 active student cases and 13 active employee cases in the district. There has only been one outbreak in which three or more people from different households came down with the virus at the same school.

At its Sept. 28 meeting, the district will consider making vaccines mandatory for children 12 and older. Barrera supports the move. If a vaccine mandate goes into effect, that will make testing less of an important strategy on high school and middle school campuses.

But testing on elementary campuses would still be an important strategy for making sure students and teachers can keep coming to school.

If the district can’t find a way to reverse the testing trends, then students in low-income communities will be more at-risk for spreading the virus. Those students are more likely to live in multi-generational households and their relatives are more likely to die from COVID-19 than students in richer, White communities.