Madison school’s early COVID testing success featured as national example

MADISON (WKOW) -- A Madison school that was an early adopter of surveillance COVID-19 testing is now getting nationally recognized for its success.

At One City Schools, students and staff are tested twice per week using a spit test -- analyzed on-site in a converted space that was originally a loading dock. Results can come in about two hours.

The school has been fully in-person from the beginning. The district has 11 teachers and 140 students, with 80 percent Black or Hispanic and 46 percent qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

Chief Operating Officer David Stephan says after discussions with parents and staff, having students in-person was their best option -- and the testing, on top of masks and distancing, is how they've been able to do it.

The school can detect COVID early, and has quarantined three classrooms this year due to positive results.

"We take the contact tracing very seriously," Stephan said. "We take the quarantining very seriously."

Administrators say having COVID testing at the school not only makes the students and staff safer, but it also gives everyone peace of mind.

"The effect psychologically and emotionally to our staff and to our parents is enormous," said wellness and improvement manager Isabel Perea.

One City Schools is one of 10 schools in a new report from the RAND Corporation -- a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institute, which highlighted examples of feasible and effective COVID testing in schools across the country.

"I'm really glad to see how successful One City has been with it," said Thomas Friedrich, a professor at UW-Madison who helped get the school system set up with testing initially.

The spit testing at One City was based on Friedrich's own research studies, conducted last summer.

"This just sort of shows the schools that are early adopters of these types of approaches, that we can... figure out ways to help schools open safely," Friedrich said.

The spit tests in particular work for surveillance testing, as they are able to detect COVID-19 in asymptomatic individuals. The testing hasn't been fully certified, however, so any positive results will still need to be confirmed by a traditional test.

One City also has rapid antigen tests, which use a nasal swab. Those have been distributed to more than 80 schools in Dane County by another group of UW researchers. The downside to those tests is that they can only detect COVID-19 in people with symptoms -- and the tests are in shorter supply.

Armed with so many mitigation strategies, One City leaders are proud of their success. They say they've fielded questions and shared ideas with other schools around the area, and are looking forward to sharing more ideas with people who see the RAND report.

"I'm glad that we have this publication," Perea said. "Around the country, they can see that it's doable."