The Princeton Public Schools district plans to test unvaccinated students for the coronavirus on a weekly basis using pooled testing, officials said.
Superintendent of Schools Carol Kelley discussed the testing during an update about actions the district is taking to combat COVID-19 such as installing HEPA filters in certain areas of school buildings. Some parents have been calling on the district to implement more safety measures such as the installation of HEPA filters, testing, and outdoor lunches since late August.
Kelley reported that there were five confirmed COVID-19 cases in the district last week. Four students and one staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Three of the student cases were at the high school, and one case was at the middle school. Kelley said since the school year began in September, there have been 18 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the district.
All teachers and staff in public and private schools in New Jersey must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or face weekly coronavirus testing, but there is not a mandate for students to be vaccinated. Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. In Princeton, screening for unvaccinated staff members began Oct. 5, officials said. Pooled testing for students will begin in the coming weeks. A letter will be going out to families about the testing. There are no out-of-pocket expenses for staff or students for COVI-19 testing.
Pooled testing is an economical and efficient method of testing larger groups of people. The New Jersey Department of Health recommends pooled testing as one screening testing strategy for students. Pooled testing involves mixing several samples from different students together in a “batch” or pooled sample, then testing the pooled sample with a diagnostic test. The approach increases the number of people who can be tested and reduces the need for testing resources. Pooled testing is best used in situations where the number of positives is expected to be very low. The testing method is recommended in areas where there is low to moderate COVID-19 transmission. The tests that will be administered in Princeton are PCR tests. Students will spit into tubes for the tests. If the pooled test is positive, within 24 to 48 hours students should be given individual COVID-19 tests, and those students who test positive would then be sent home to quarantine. Kelley said the testing vendor will have the results of pooled tests in 12 to 14 hours. Families will have to sign a consent form and complete a HIPAA waiver for the testing.
Kelley said HEPA filters will be installed in the cafeterias and the multipurpose rooms of all six schools in the district within the next few weeks. Officials are also planning a pilot test where smaller air purifiers will be installed in a few high school classrooms to determine their efficiency and make sure that the filtration systems aren’t too noisy in the smaller spaces. The district will also be purchasing equipment to test the air quality in some of the common areas of schools.
District officials are exploring the possibility of keeping tents outside beyond Nov. 30 for students who want to eat lunch outside. Students who want to eat outside after Nov. 30 could possibly opt-in to continue to eat outside. Kelley said the number of students who eat indoors at any given time in lunchrooms has been reduced through logistical planning, and added that the HEPA filters also will help in the cafeterias.