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Wash U Researchers Bring Free Coronavirus Tests To North St. Louis County Schools

Pattonville School District is one of five districts offering free coronavirus saliva tests for its students, teachers and their families.
Pattonville School District
A Pattonville School District school employee checks a student's temperature before she enters the building. The Pattonville district is one of five offering free coronavirus saliva tests for students, teachers and their families during the 2021-22 school year.

Washington University researchers are working with the National Institutes of Health to provide five St. Louis County school districts free saliva testing for the coronavirus.

The RADx-Up research program has set up drive-thru clinics on school campuses throughout the Normandy, Jennings, Pattonville, University City and Ferguson-Florissant school districts during the 2021-22 school year. Open Sunday through Friday, the testing sites aim to make testing more accessible in north St. Louis County schools.

“It’s our community. We’re all a part of this community so this research is a partnership with Washington University, these school districts and our African American community,” said Dr. Jason Newland, a Washington University researcher and professor of pediatric infectious diseases. “We’re all in this together.”

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic,researchers have shown that Black communities are disproportionately affected by the virus. That’s why the program has centered its focus on schools with large populations of African American students, Newland said.

“The only way to truly address some of the access issues or racism issues is to really be embedded with our community to do the research that we believe is important to advance COVID-19 testing, to advance COVID-19 vaccination, to advance our understanding of schools in our community,” he said.

Under the program, tests are available to students, teachers and their families. By involving the whole community in the effort, school officials say they feel more confident in having students in a classroom — a priority for most schools.

“The past semester, I’ve had to quarantine classrooms. I had to close an entire school, and that’s devastating for students and for parents,” University City Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley said. “We do want to not just be in school, but to remain in school and do it in a safe way.”

In addition to testing sites, high school students in eight selected schools will be tested weekly for asymptomatic COVID-19 infections.

The testing is one of the many strategies schools will be using to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the upcoming school year. School officials say they’re working closely with researchers on what strategies are most effective.

“We’re educators, not scientists. So having them as a resource is invaluable,” Pattonville Superintendent Tim Pecoraro said.

But the program is about more than just testing. Through a partnership with Wash U’s Brown School of Social Work, researchers are responding to the COVID-19 concerns of people in their community and answering their questions.

“We’re conducting listening sessions with parents, students, staff, administrators to understand the impact of COVID-19, to understand COVID-19 testing and potential hesitancies, to understand COVID-19 vaccinations,” Newland said, “and, lastly, to understand the barriers that our community faced when it talked about going back to in-person school.”

The research team then aims to use the information to address health disparities in the community throughout the upcoming school year.

“To really understand the lived experiences of our Black community and our Black communities in schools — these learnings I hope are everlasting,” Newland said.

Follow Kendall on Twitter: @kcrawfish33