chula vista elementary school district

South Bay School District Starts Innovative COVID-19 Testing Partnership

The largest elementary school district in California hopes a partnership with an Orange County bioscience company becomes national model

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Officials from the Chula Vista Elementary School District think its coronavirus testing partnership with a bioscience company could be a model for the rest of the nation.

CVESD is partnering with a private Orange County company, Kahala Biosciences, to offer voluntary COVID-19 tests to students, staff and family members.

Like many districts, Chula Vista Elementary is grappling with how to safely get its 30,000-plus students back in classrooms, and it sees this partnership as a key part of the process.

Perhaps the best part of the deal for the district: It’s free.

This week marked the beginning of the first of three phases, with baseline tests administered to detect the virus and prior infections.

Tents were available at different elementary schools across the city, with people lining up for the two different types: a traditional nasal swab, which identifies the presence of infection, and a finger-prick test to identify possible antibodies.

"So by doing antibody testing, we get a better sense of what community exposure rate really is," said Kahala Biosciences founder, Dr. Francis Duhay. "Data exists today to show that it's 40% to 80% higher than what you thought, based on viral testing."

Duhays team, based out of Irvine, Calif., will be back in November and December for follow-up tests.

The results are aimed at giving the district valuable data that it hopes will make families and teachers feel more comfortable about returning to in-person learning.

"We are working through [a memorandum of understanding] -- presently we're very very close to signing it," said Armando Farias, CVESD Board president. "It's important for our staff -- not only teachers, but classified -- to know we care about your health. We care about your safety -- that's why we're doing this."

The partnership, which will likely extend into 2021, with more tests administered once kids are back on campuses, has a personal connection.

District employee Mike Minjares, who had COVID-19, is longtime friends with Kahala's chief medical officer. A conversation of theirs turned into dreams of something bigger, with the Irvine-based company signing on to do the testing and data crunching for free.

Duhay, who is at the forefront of testing technology and already analyzing experimental $5 rapid-result take-home COVID tests, said the future is exciting for the district, based on quickly changing technology.

Kahala Biosciences is only using proven tests for this partnership, which will yield extremely valuable microlevel data to the district as it starts relaxing restrictions.

"So those restrictions may include physical distancing, the proportion of students in hybrid distance learning versus in-class instruction, how often you have to disinfect and clean a classroom," Duhay said. "Right now, most schools are operating blindly."

The Chula Vista Elementary School District does have about 1,100 of its most vulnerable kids back on campus already in some form or fashion, but it has yet to announce a date for the rest of students to return for on-campus learning.

While the district is waiting to finalize the memorandum of understanding with the teacher's union, it is also waiting for the numbers to go down in a couple of South Bay Zip codes with high infection rates.

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