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Community Labs ends school COVID-19 testing program

Community Labs personnel test schoolchildren.
Community Labs
Community Labs personnel test schoolchildren.

Community Labs, the San Antonio nonprofit that launched a large-scale school coronavirus testing program during the first year of the pandemic, has ended its school testing program.

Community Labs President Sal Webber said the program was funded through a purchase order agreement with the Texas Division of Emergency Management, and the agreement ended at the end of March.

“We're at a low positivity (rate); at this point, it's probably the right time to start scaling back testing efforts,” Webber said. “And you know, it’s not like we're throwing everything away in the lab. The lab is still there, and if another surge comes along, and the state needs us, then we'll figure out how to ramp things back up.”

For more than a year, Community Labs made weekly visits to about 300 schools to test students and staff, providing PCR test results within 24 hours.

Since the lab opened in September 2020, Webber said they’ve administered more than 2 million tests, with 90% of the tests coming from schools. Eleven school districts in Bexar County took part in the program, plus schools in Laredo and San Marcos.

“Our mission when we started was to keep San Antonio open,” Webber said, adding that the widespread testing in schools started functioning as an early warning system for the broader community.

“I really do feel like we saved lives,” Webber said. “We started functioning as this canary in the coal mine, so to speak, with finding the asymptomatic five-year-olds and eight-year-olds who may unknowingly pass on the virus to somebody who's compromised in some way or elderly.”

Community Labs tested 100 sites weekly in the San Antonio Independent School District alone. Toni Thompson, the associate superintendent of human resources, credits the testing with keeping students in school and teachers in the classroom while keeping the community safe.

“I definitely wish we were still going (with the weekly campus testing). I can't tell you how much their service and support have affected just the sense of safety and security that employees have and that parents have for their children,” she added.

During the omicron surge in January, Thompson said Community Labs’ testing enabled SAISD to identify and isolate nearly 8,500 cases — more than double the number of cases during the previous six months combined.

“If we had not been able to test every single week and identify folks and get them out to isolate, there would have been greater exposure,” Thompson said. “There would have been more individuals who were sick or more individuals who were not monitoring for symptoms.”

Thompson said SAISD would monitor the county positivity rate following Fiesta and Easter. It would apply for more funding from TEA for rapid tests if the rate goes up. Previously, SAISD used the rapid tests primarily to test students before they participated in hands-on extracurriculars. But now that weekly PCR tests through Community Labs has ended, Thompson expects the district to quickly deplete their store of rapid tests.

“We really had the gold standard with Community Labs. It was an enviable position. Not many districts were able to test that regularly and that much,” Thompson said.

Community Labs continues to operate two free testing sites in San Antonio funded by the city and Bexar County -- one at Wonderland of the Americas and one at the Alamo Colleges District central office.

SAISD will also continue to provide two testing sites available for students and staff through a contract with Accu Reference Lab -- one at Alamo Stadium and the other at the sports complex next to Burbank High school.

Initial funding to set up Community Labs was provided by three local foundations spearheaded by San Antonio business leaders: The Tobin Endowment, The 80/20 Foundation and the Kronskosky Charitable Foundation.

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Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Instagram at camille.m.phillips. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.