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Website Predicts Impacts of School COVID Testing Policies

Mathematica researchers have created a website that predicts the effectiveness of various in-school COVID-19 testing strategies according to local conditions, using data from the past school year.

With the highly transmissible COVID-19 delta variant threatening to close schools across the country, K-12 officials are weighing their options for coronavirus testing strategies. To help them make informed decisions, the data research company Mathematica developed a website to predict the effectiveness of various testing strategies.

According to a news release, the COVID-19 K-12 School Testing Impact Estimator uses data collected from about 335 schools and school testing sites in Louisville, Ky.; Los Angeles, Calif.; New Orleans, La.; Tulsa, Okla.; Washington, D.C.; and the state of Rhode Island during the 2020-21 school year. The data was part of a report documenting a pilot project by the Rockefeller Foundation to assess different COVID-19 testing protocols in K-12 schools.

Divya Vohra, senior researcher at Mathematica and lead learning partner for the project, said researchers used agent-based statistical modeling from the findings to estimate future outcomes of different testing strategies.

“We built the estimator based on the agent modeling we did. We essentially modeled hundreds of different routine testing scenarios based on what schools in our pilot sites were implementing or considering implementing in terms of who they were testing and how often,” she said of the computational model.

“We ran hundreds of simulations across hundreds of different combinations of routine testing scenarios, and we put all of that together in this interactive impact estimator. The idea is that the user could enter in a few specific parameters to define what’s going on in the communities and schools,” she added. “You can enter all of that information and consider what testing strategies you’re weighing.”

According to Vohra, the tool allows school and public health officials to take local conditions into account when implementing new testing programs, as well as the helpfulness of symptom-based diagnostic testing strategies.

“The estimator basically allows you to compare all of the different testing strategies you’re considering, and how they each perform in terms of key outcomes we would care about,” she said. “That would include the number of in-school transmissions you would prevent, and how many lost days of school you would have due to quarantine and isolation.”

Vohra said most schools in the study used rapid antigen testing, but districts took different approaches to the frequency of testing.

She said school and local public health officials were left largely on their own to formulate testing and mitigation strategies, without much guidance from state and federal authorities.

“We found that a lot of schools were getting creative in figuring that out on their own, but that was out of necessity – they just had little support," she said.

“We think the tool can be valuable to school administrators and public health officials supporting schools, particularly as they think about how to link up with state health departments, and get access to [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] funding to support routine testing for this school year.”

Despite some questions around the accuracy of pooled testing, or combining many samples to be tested at once, pooled PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing was found to be the most effective strategy for high-risk schools relying on testing to reduce transmission, with serial antigen testing coming in a close second, according to the study. Routine testing was proven to reduce and eliminate transmission, the report said.

According to an additional survey conducted in July by the RAND Corporation and Rockefeller Foundation, only a third of parents felt informed on school safety measures and testing programs amid the delta surge, despite a preference for in-person schooling.

“Our research has found that most parents want to send their children to school in person, and they want a suite of safety measures at school — not just one practice — to feel comfortable doing so,” RAND senior policy researcher Heather Schwartz said in a public statement.

With most testing programs conducted alongside masking and social distancing, Vohra said coordination and participation remain essential to the success of mitigation strategies to prevent and contain the deadly virus.

“On the question of acceptability and building comfort for testing, we found that community engagement and buy-in from key stakeholders – especially parents and families – is really critical to the success of a testing program," she said of the findings. "Schools can do a lot to promote that buy-in, including making the whole process of informed consent or opting into testing more streamlined and easier to understand."

Vohra said the data used to create the estimator was gathered before the advent of the delta variant. As of Monday, she said, researchers were working to update the tool with data related to the new strain already closing some schools' doors this fall.

“At that time, we didn’t see this coming, and we weren’t able to consider what we now know about the increased transmissibility of the delta variant,” she said.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.