Austin ISD pilots COVID-19 ‘pooled testing’

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Independent School District is trying out a new method of COVID-19 testing in its district. It rolled out pooled testing Tuesday at Ridgetop Elementary. All students who had their family’s consent got tested for COVID-19.

“I’m excited that Austin is considering it,” said Elena Jervis, parent of two Ridgetop Elementary students.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s when swabs from several people are tested together for COVID-19.

If a pooled test returns positive results, AISD says it’ll know which classroom it came from and will retest individual students from there to figure out who is actually positive for the virus.

In a letter to parents, Ridgetop’s principal, Kara Schultz, said they’re using a Texas Education Agency grant to fund this process.

Jervis says Isla (left), in 4th grade, and Elle (right), in 5th grade, returned to in-person learning last year. She says with more students doing so this year, there’s been an increase in COVID-19 cases and supports pooled testing. (Photo courtesy Elena Jervis)

In a message online, the district says it “could allow Austin ISD to target campuses where students are testing positive more frequently” and help curb that trend.

“There is no downside to the testing, we are hoping with higher numbers of participants we can identify anyone asymptomatic and mitigate potential spread,” Schultz wrote to parents.

The CDC says one advantage of this method is testing in big batches reduces time and lowers the overall cost of testing.

Schultz said they’re partnering with company Concentric by Ginkgo for the tests.

Jervis says the company did the same at her friends’ school in Salem, Massachusetts last year, so Jervis and her daughters were familiar with the process.

“When I asked them about it today when they came home, it was like, ‘hmm, no big deal, was fine, kind of tickled,’” Jervis said.

For now, this is a pilot program, but in Schultz’s email to parents, the Ridgetop principal says the district is “developing plans to continue pooled testing throughout the district.”

Jervis hopes it continues at her school and expands to others.

“Until there’s that age group that can be vaccinated, you know, we’re gonna have to do something,” she said. “Bottom line, I don’t see how it hurts anything.”

AISD says because pooled testing means more students will be tested, it could lead to more positive results in Austin ISD initially.

This chart from Austin ISD’s COVID-19 dashboard is sorted in order of most-to-least cumulative COVID-19 cases, between Aug. 19 and Oct. 19. (Source: AISD)

AISD’s dashboard currently shows Ridgetop Elementary has one new case as of Tuesday. The most is three at Small Middle School and Baranoff Elementary.

Ridgetop has 20 cumulative cases so far between August and now. Akins Early College High School shows the most, at 57 total cases so far.