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Missouri’s K-12 schools can access free COVID testing. Most haven’t signed up

Karen Hogan has been speaking with school leaders across Missouri to get them interested in a free COVID-19 testing program.
Ginkgo Bioworks
Karen Hogan has been speaking with school leaders across Missouri about free COVID-19 testing programs.

The federal government has earmarked $185 million to the state of Missouri for free COVID-19 testing in the schools. It’s part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “ELC-Reopening Schools” initiative, which aims to keep K-12 schools open even as the pandemic drags on. But as of last Friday, Missouri had spent less than $2 million of it.

Indeed, roughly eight weeks into the school year, only five “local education agencies” throughout the state — a term that includes school districts and private or charter schools — had signed on for testing with the state’s contractor, Ginkgo Bioworks, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. That’s even though the free program includes not just tests, but Ginkgo’s “push button” service to set things up and keep them running.

Ginkgo is finally starting to make inroads. Last week, another 13 Missouri districts got their testing programs up and running. Now 101 schools throughout the state are using screening testing through Ginkgo, including the Hazelwood schools, the Ferguson-Florissant district and a smattering of charter and Catholic schools around the region.

More should get programs going soon, said Karen Hogan, Ginkgo’s Midwest regional lead for K-12 COVID testing.

“Our Missouri team has been on the phone around the clock the last two days,” she explained on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “Inbound interest is definitely increasing.”

'Interest is definitely increasing.'
Listen to the St. Louis on the Air conversation with Ginkgo's Karen Hogan

One district that’s signed on is the Kansas City Public Schools. Lauren Grimes, director of nursing for the district, told St. Louis on the Air that administering the weekly tests to students and staff who’ve signed on “takes just seconds.”

Said Grimes, “Ginkgo provides a team that comes into the schools and handles all the testing. The school nurse just provides the list of students and staff that have signed up, and results are returned within 24 to 48 hours. It's been especially useful during this fall allergy season, as we've been able to distinguish between runny noses and COVID.”

What Ginkgo offers is a “screening testing” program, which tests everybody who’s signed up once a week — regardless of whether they have symptoms. The idea is to root out even asymptomatic cases before they begin to spread. And if it gives parents comfort that their kid (or their kids’ seatmates) just have allergies, not COVID, all the better.

“We’re at this area where students are developing coughs, they have allergies,” Hogan said. “The symptoms that are aligned with COVID are also aligned with other illnesses that are especially common illnesses that we see in the fall and winter. Making sure that a testing program is in place that can help rule COVID out within the classroom is very important to schools.”

Also helping to overcome parental resistance: Some districts are moving (with the state’s blessing) to “test-to-stay” policies. That allows kids who’ve been exposed to COVID to stay in the classroom so long as they wear masks and continue to test negative for the virus.

“This is a game changer for communities, because now that fear of sending kids home when they might be healthy enough to stay in school is removed,” Hogan said.

While Ginkgo provides staffing for schools that sign on for testing screening programs, Hogan stressed its simplicity. In many classrooms, even younger students can easily self-administer the test.

“I've actually had one of those tests where the swab goes all the way up to what feels like your brain,” she said. “This is not at all what that program is.” Of students, she added, “they say it’s as easy as picking your nose.”

For information on signing up your school district, see Ginkgo Bioworks’ site.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.