Multiple strategies for testing students and faculty/staff, including expanded diagnostic testing (test to stay) designed to avoid symptom-based isolation and contact quarantine, screening (routinely testing asymptomatic individuals to identify infections and contain transmission), and surveillance (testing a random sample of students to identify undetected transmission and trigger additional investigation or interventions).
Projections included 30-day cumulative incidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection, proportion of cases detected, proportion of planned and unplanned days out of school, cost of testing programs, and childcare costs associated with different strategies. For screening policies, the cost per SARS-CoV-2 infection averted in students and staff was estimated, and for surveillance, the probability of correctly or falsely triggering an outbreak response was estimated at different incidence and attack rates.
In this modeling study of a simulated population of primary school students and simulated transmission of COVID-19, test-to-stay policies and/or screening tests facilitated consistent in-person school attendance with low transmission risk across a range of community incidence. Surveillance was a useful reduced-cost option for detecting outbreaks and identifying school environments that would benefit from increased mitigation.
In addition to illness, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to historic educational disruptions. In March 2021, the federal government allocated $10 billion for COVID-19 testing in US schools.
Compared with quarantine policies, test-to-stay policies are associated with similar model-projected transmission, with a mean of less than 0.25 student days per month of quarantine or isolation. Weekly universal screening is associated with approximately 50% less in-school transmission at one-seventh to one-half the societal cost of hybrid or remote schooling. The cost per infection averted in students and staff by weekly screening is lowest for schools with less vaccination, fewer other mitigation measures, and higher levels of community transmission. In settings where local student incidence is unknown or rapidly changing, surveillance testing may detect moderate to large in-school outbreaks with fewer resources compared with schoolwide screening.
Costs and benefits of COVID-19 testing strategies were evaluated in the context of full-time, in-person kindergarten through eighth grade (K-8) education at different community incidence levels.
An updated version of a previously published agent-based network model was used to simulate transmission in elementary and middle school communities in the United States. Assuming dominance of the delta SARS-CoV-2 variant, the model simulated an elementary school (638 students in grades K-5, 60 staff) and middle school (460 students grades 6-8, 51 staff).