Around 4% of more than 14,000 Seattle Public Schools students and staff who participated in the district’s rapid testing clinics this week tested positive for COVID-19, said the district’s assistant deputy superintendent Carri Campbell.

Volunteers and district staff administered the tests in pop-up clinics on Sunday and Monday after the state’s largest district received a shipment of 60,000 rapid tests from the state health department last week. Seattle has about 50,000 students and 7,800 staff.

The testing was intended to help build a forecast of how many staff might be out for quarantine periods and need substitutes, and to slow virus transmission in classrooms after winter break. It came together quickly.

Campbell did not directly answer a question about whether there was a strong chance the district would transition back to remote learning, but stressed that in-person instruction is the district’s priority, and the primary reason for the pop-up sites. She also said the district has been sending individual classrooms home when necessary. The district sent a message to families two weeks ago warning that if cases spiked after the holidays, classes could be moved online temporarily.

“We are meeting on a daily basis to look at all our data, and all COVID-related concerns,” she said. 

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Last month, the district sent an urgent request to the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) for tests prior to the holiday break. On Dec. 28, DOH approved the order. Shortly after, the district’s delivery drivers drove through snowfall to the city of Kalama to retrieve the tests from the state.

“We actually haven’t ever gotten the rapid antigen tests from the Department of Health. We were thrilled,” said Campbell.

The district had just a few days to coordinate labor to staff the testing clinics, and build a system to report positive cases to the state, because the normal vendor wasn’t available on such short notice.

Officials were not able to provide a breakdown of the positive cases by staff and students on Tuesday, but Campbell noted that the staff absence rates on Tuesday, the first day of school in the new year, looked typical.

The remainder of the rapid tests are being used at school sites the rest of this week and next.

No other school district in Washington state has administered rapid tests in such a manner and scale; most, like SPS, primarily provide testing to students and staff who are symptomatic. A spokesperson for the Tacoma School District, which provides this type of testing at a clinic open daily, said she could not provide a test positivity rate.

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In the Northshore School District, which conducts weekly testing of students, 19% of tests came back positive this week. The Shoreline School District also runs a testing site for students, their families and staff regardless of symptoms, but a spokesperson for the district did not respond to an email seeking more information on positivity rates.

Other districts in the Puget Sound region, including Bellevue and Auburn, were planning to ramp up testing this week; however, winter weather delays and transportation shortages delayed testing of students and staff. 

In Los Angeles, LA Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district with more than 1 million students, requires all staff and students to test weekly for in-person instruction. The district’s most recent test positivity rate was just under 2%.

Before this week, rapid tests hadn’t been in wide use at SPS, except to test student athletes. The district uses PCR tests to diagnose students and staff who display symptoms.

The tests provided peace-of-mind for many families and staff as local and national case rates have skyrocketed over the holidays due to the spread of the omicron variant.

There are additional testing options on the horizon for the school district.

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The district plans to create more regional testing sites for staff and students, regardless of symptom status, sometime this winter, said Campbell. So far, there are two — at Meany Middle School and Southshore K-8.

Next month, the district also plans to roll out a “test-to-stay” program, coordinated with the Department of Health, which would allow students and staff who have close contacts with COVID-positive individuals to test out of lengthy quarantine periods.

And, sometime this spring, the district plans to pilot a weekly batch testing program at a few schools, which would test all students and staff.

The barrier to expanding thus far has been labor, said Campbell. While the Department of Health provides tests, vendors and lab services through its Learn to Return program for schools, it does not always provide the necessary labor to pull off large scale testing. But the district is now in the process of securing additional vendors to expand its testing capacity.

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Seattle Times engagement editor Jenn Smith contributed to this report.