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St. Louis Public Radio: New Wash U initiative aims to decrease outbreaks, promote vaccine literacy in underserved school districts

StLPR NPR web logoLink: https://news.stlpublicradio.org/education/2021-06-22/washu-researchers-bring-free-coronavirus-tests-to-north-st-louis-county-schools

New Wash U initiative aims to decrease outbreaks, promote vaccine literacy in underserved school districts

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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.

ST. LOUIS  -- For months, desks in schools across the country sat empty. As the new school year approaches, teachers, parents and doctors in the St. Louis area are already planning for a safe return to full-time in-person learning this fall.

Funding awarded to Washington University School of Medicine will help at-risk school districts with needed resources and prevent outbreaks before they start. Christina Grove is a teacher in the University City School District. As a mother and teacher, she said the concern of COVID outbreaks over the last year was always in the back of her mind.

She knows many of her students are under-resourced and medically underserved, which made virtual learning and finding testing sites an even bigger challenge.

“I’m hoping there’s no learning loss on the part of educators and that we move into this next year serving students better,” Grove said.

School leaders said that begins with identifying COVID outbreaks before they happen. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine are using money awarded from the National Institutes of Health to provide testing in the Normandy, Jennings, Pattonville, Ferguson-Florissant and University City school districts. Dr. Jason Newland, is behind the research, and said it’s crucial to study and provide easy access in districts where the majority of students are African American.

“We want to be in the community and be there to learn more and more about what is our best testing strategy and what is the best way to handle the COVID-19 pandemic in the communities that have been hardest hit by the virus,” Newland said.

“The goal is to understand if we really need intense testing within a school to keep it safe from having COVID-19 transmission,” Newland said.

Another factor, is continuing education not just about the importance of testing but also the vaccine. University City Schools Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley said most parents in her district are still leery about getting it.

“There’s a lot of fear, around the vaccine in general so even once the vaccine was available many of our parents did not feel comfortable taking the vaccine and when it was available for children, didn’t feel comfortable giving it to their kids under 12,” Hardin-Bartley said.

The initiative has already started but the goal is to hit the ground running when students return to school in the fall. In addition to weekly testing in various schools, families and staff within those five school districts can also visit a number of drive-thru testing sites, six days a week. If parents and students 12 years and older decide to get the vaccine, school leaders and researchers at Washington University are happy to point them in the right direction. If you’d like to read more information about the study, click here.

 
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