Behind the swab: COVID-19 testing equity within SF schools

Upon entering campus, Urban students have grown accustomed to seeing a line of dozens waiting impatiently to be tested for COVID-19. As the Omicron variant has spread rapidly throughout San Francisco, continual testing has been crucial for the health and safety of Urban and the greater community. However, questions have arisen about the ethics of Urban’s frequent testing requirements as well as testing equity within the larger San Francisco school system.
Urban chooses to mandate regular COVID-19 testing to protect the health of the community. “We are [strict about safety] because we really want to prioritize protecting the members of our community that are immunocompromised and the teachers and faculty that have young kids at home that can’t get vaccinated,” said Pandemic Coordinator Evie Hidysmith ‘17. Unlike Urban, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) does not require asymptomatic screening testing for COVID-19. According to the SFUSD website, “all students will be able to come to school if a family chooses not to have them participate in COVID-19 testing.”
The California Department of Public Health has provided rapid antigen testing kits to both public and independent schools in San Francisco, including Urban. While all San Francisco schools have access to COVID-19 tests, putting tests to use can prove challenging when administering them relies on the size of a school’s task force. Urban can efficiently utilize its state-issued tests because of its large pandemic staff team in relation to its small student body.
According to Assistant Head for Student Life Charlotte Worsley, Urban has about eight people helping to test students for COVID-19 and contact-trace students who test positive. Coordinating such safety measures for an entire student body is time-consuming and tedious, even at a small school like Urban. “It took me about two hours to do the contact tracing for one student [who tested positive],” said Worsley.
The SFUSD website states that “[students can] come and pick up take-home self-swab molecular test kits and drop their samples off at sites.” While Urban students can take COVID-19 tests at school and be emailed their results the same day, SFUSD students can opt to pick up a test and then drop it off at various locations throughout the city to receive their results. Worsley believes that the issue of testing equity likely lies not in COVID-19 test shortages but in a lack of staff in SFUSD who can coordinate and perform COVID-19 testing for thousands of students.
While Urban is resourced with a task force that can deploy COVID-19 testing supplies, it has strived to keep ethics at the forefront of its policies as much as safety measures permit. “After this surge somewhat subsides and we have more time to think about it, we are planning on donating excess tests,” said Hidysmith. “If you feel really strongly about a community that you work in…and they need a COVID resource, you should come and talk to us about that.”
Hidysmith finds weighing ethical beliefs and safety measures that allow schools to remain in-person extremely challenging. “I have to balance what I know that is scientific and true, and what I feel is ethically or morally right,” said Hidysmith. “So much COVID anxiety comes up in my job every day. We are all feeling it and we’re all in it together.”