Local school's program uses student spit to test, stop COVID spread in classroom

Rockwern Academy tests student spit
Posted at 9:11 PM, Nov 29, 2021

SYCAMORE TWP., Ohio — Rockwern Academy leaders said Monday the school has not had a single case of COVID-19 spread, crediting in part a new testing strategy — using students' spit.

"We normally don't encourage spitting," said Rabbi Laura Baum, "but when the nurse asks you to spit or your parents ask you to spit for the purpose of public health, we do encourage it."

Rockwern has started using a "pool" strategy for testing when a student is exposed to COVID-19. The students in that classroom spit in a cup — or use a soft sponge mouth swab if they're too young — and the saliva is tested for the virus. The tests turn around in just two hours, faster than many other PCR tests, but do not tell Edelstein which student had the virus.

"It's a weird thing and it's not common," school nurse Jacie Edelstein said.

Edelstein now works part-time in a makeshift lab, running PCR tests. On Monday, she was running tests for a class of young students whose classmate had an exposure to the virus. One of those samples belonged to 4-year-old Eve Baker, who listed off spitting in a cup and using the mouth swab as quickly as drawing dinosaurs and playing with blocks when her mom, Jackie, asked what she'd done Monday at school.

"She loves being in school," Baker said. "She wakes up on the weekends and wants to be in school. She loves her friends, she loves her teachers and what she's learning. So having the ability to be here if it's safe is the best of both worlds."

The goal of the program is to keep kids in class, in-person, and stop spread of COVID-19 in the classroom and, ultimately, at home. Eventually, Rockwern leaders would like to do regular testing of all students who opt in.

"With surveillance testing, the goal is ultimately to test everybody in the school a couple of times a week and to catch cases before they're caught," Edelstein said. "Before somebody in the family is sick enough that their parent loses sense of taste or smell or before the whole family gets knocked down by COVID."

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Not all parents are happy with the idea, or will opt in, school leaders said, but those leaders maintain testing is one part of a bigger strategy for health and safety.

"That felt like the one piece of the bundle that we didn't have," Baum said. "And now with this amazing technology, we're able to use it in a way that doesn't inconvenience families and doesn't disturb children's routines much."

The idea to purchase the testing equipment and implement the program came from another Jewish school in California, and the equipment came from that state, too, according to Edelstein. She's no stranger to changing medical situations — serving as a nurse in Texas during the ebola epidemic.

Kids like Eve are pretty welcoming of something less intrusive than a nasal swab. Some parents even do the spit sample themselves and send it in the sealed cup to school for Edelstein.

"Because you can make it into a game and it's not painful, it's easy," Edelstein said.

Right now, Rockwern is testing only on an as-needed basis if there's been an exposure or a positive test in a classroom, but Baum said that could change based on the recommendations of a school medical panel.

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