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San Diego Unified asks for 10,000 daily coronavirus tests for students and staff

Nursing students administer coronavirus tests to students in the gym at Point Loma Nazarene University on Oct. 15.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The San Diego Unified School District and Mayor Kevin Faulconer are asking Gov. Gavin Newsom for 10,000 daily coronavirus tests for district students and staff for when it opens for in-person instruction — a time that has not yet been decided.

San Diego Unified’s request would essentially double how much testing is happening across the county now.

District officials said Oct. 16 that San Diego Unified’s future reopening would not be contingent on getting the tests. At the same time, they said an extensive testing and tracing program is “essential” to safely reopen campuses.

“We are calling for the governor to dedicate the sizable COVID-19 testing resources under his control toward promoting a safe and healthy environment for students and teachers,” Faulconer said in a statement. “There is little more important than the education and mental well-being of our kids, so we have an obligation to reopen classrooms to in-person learning and close the growing educational and economic inequities in our communities.”

San Diego Unified’s teachers union said it believes it won’t be safe enough to return until there is an extensive testing program.

“Our educators are eager to get back into the classroom as soon as it is safe to do so, and the key to that is a ... testing, tracking and tracing program,” union President Kisha Borden said in a statement.

If granted by the state, those 10,000 daily tests would allow San Diego Unified leaders to achieve their goal of testing every student and staff member every other week — an ideal that has been difficult and expensive for other schools to pursue, considering how limited testing currently is.

Newsom announced in August that California would double the state’s coronavirus testing by contracting with Perkin Elmer for an additional 150,000 daily tests. It’s unclear when state officials will announce where the additional daily tests will go and who will get to use them.

San Diego Unified officials are hoping the state will set aside 10,000 of those for district staff and students. The district is asking for the testing to occur at sites near or on campuses.

San Diego Unified is the state’s second-largest school district, with roughly 100,0000 students and more than 14,000 staff members, though not all students and staff will choose to return to in-person school even when the district allows them to.

Officials hope the state will prioritize schools when doling out the 150,000 daily tests. A letter sent Oct. 15 from mayors of 13 of California’s largest cities, including San Diego, asked Newsom to give as many tests as possible to schools so they can reopen classrooms and address learning losses resulting from continued closures.

With government-provided testing scarce, other school districts already announced plans months ago to buy their own testing.

Most notably, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner secured a $48.9 million contract with a biotech firm to provide 40,000 daily tests for some of Los Angeles’ approximately 500,000 students and 75,000 staff members.

San Diego Unified has not announced such a testing program. The district has said it had $45 million to spend on reopening costs and that money has been allocated or spent on other measures, such as cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.

Meanwhile, most school districts in San Diego County have already reopened campuses or are reopening this month. Most do not have asymptomatic testing programs. So far, the reported number of coronavirus cases related to schools has been relatively small, with 283 reported over August and September. ◆