Two RNs and Principal Cymbre Thomas Swett sweep through the elementary school quickly testing all students in classroom pods that have signed parental/guardian permission slips.
Is pooled testing the answer?
Superintendent shares how free COVID testing has kept her students safe
December 6, 2021
How can one small K-12 school district in Northern California perform COVID tests on a majority of its 460 students in just two hours? The answer: Pooled testing.
Anderson Valley Unified School District was one of the first districts to take advantage of pooled COVID testing offered by Concentric through a partnership with the California Department of Public Health. Every Wednesday, nurses sweep through each classroom to distribute the nasal-swab tests, which are self-administered by students. By Friday morning, administrators can see any classrooms or grade levels that have positive cases. The district began testing the first week in September and has been able to keep schools safe and open — with no additional cost to the district.
EdCal asked Anderson Valley Superintendent Louise Simson how the program has been going and why she thinks pooled testing is the way to end the vax and mask wars.
Can you explain pooled testing and why you sought this free program for your district? Pooled testing is a quick and effective way to surveillance test hundreds of students on a weekly basis with less than seven minutes of time in each classroom. Each Wednesday, all students that have permission slips on file self-swab their nose with a Q-tip in the lower part of the nose for “five swirls” on each side. We call it “tickle your nose.” The Q-tip goes cotton tip down into the “classroom” test tube and we move on to the next class. This is a “pool” of one class. We continue through the school until we have collected all of the pools. For a 275-kid elementary school, it takes less than an hour. We do the same thing at the junior/senior high school. The courier picks up the test tubes and they are delivered to the lab Wednesday afternoon. By 5 a.m. Friday, I see all pools’ negative or positive status on the Concentric site, and if any one of them comes up positive, I receive, along with the site principal, an alert email of the pool that comes up positive. The nurses return that morning to do rapid tests on all students in the pool that came up positive. It is quick and easy and no cost to my school system.
This is a voluntary testing program. How many students and staff have opted in? We have a student population of 460 students preschool through 12th grade. We have 350 students and staff testing weekly. Our vaccination rates are high, so our participation in the junior/senior site is lower than at the elementary. Participation exploded after we received our first positive pool back in September.
We’ve heard about staffing issues when implementing COVID testing. Who does your testing? The beauty of this program is the vendor, Concentric, handles everything. I managed the sign-ups online and ordered the supplies from their site, but they coordinate everything else including staffing, courier, testing lab, etc. This is a no-brainer for student safety and is truly a state program that is well thought out and well delivered.
Have the students been receptive? The students want to be part of the herd and test. They feel empowered that they are keeping themselves, their family and their community safe. They don’t think a thing about it. Our parents have been very grateful. No matter what side of the political spectrum our community is on, everyone just views it as an easy piece of information to keep school open. In my opinion, this program is the bridge to get to a place where we can look at lowering restrictions such as masking.
How many positive results have you seen this school year? We have had four positive cases this year all deemed by the health officer as “community-based” not school-based cases.
What has the response been from teachers, staff and families? The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Families that were scared to have their kids come back to school knew that we had a science-based measure to ensure we weren’t putting kids at risk. Families that were less worried were happy to participate because it gave voice to their feeling that COVID could be managed in schools. The data speaks for itself. We can manage infection through surveillance testing. It was also a boon for our sports program, as the pool testing took the place of one of the required weekly testings prior to sports participation.
You wrote a letter to Gov. Newsom saying pooled testing could replace mask mandates and vaccination requirements. Could you explain why? I always seek common ground. My last school district was much more politically conservative. We need to stop looking at “one-size-fits-all” solutions for districts from Los Angeles to Boonville. Let’s use science and data to create solutions. If a school is implementing pool testing at a certain participation level (or a certain vaccination level in combination with pool testing), can we start to loosen the mask mandates? If infection pops up, then the masking returns.
I also believe these divisive and derisive vaccine mandates can be tempered with a measured response of pooled testing. If an employee, or family is passionate that they don’t want a vaccination mandate, but they are open to pool testing, let’s grab that common ground and create a solution instead of a division.
I am also really concerned for our amazing school board members throughout the state. They didn’t sign up for this conflict and divide. They signed up to create fantastic educational outcomes for kids. Let us use this program, which is already in existence, to create a path forward to stop all of this conflict and develop a scientific solution to keep staff and students safe and get kids back to “normal.”
I am a believer in the program. If anyone wants to talk about it, please email me at lsimson@avpanthers.org.

Watch a video on Anderson Valley USD's pooled COVID testing program.
Anderson Valley Superintendent Louise Simson.
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