The Antigen COVID-19 testing site at Jesuit High School in Carmichael last month.

Committed to opening Catholic schools during the pandemic “because of a strong public health case for kids being in class,” Rancho Murieta resident Lincoln Snyder has implemented a pilot COVID-19 testing program to increase their safety.    

He doesn’t know of another testing program like it, particularly for middle school, at least in Sacramento or Solano counties.

As the superintendent and executive director of schools for the Diocese of Sacramento, Snyder oversees 13,000 students in 38 elementary schools and six high schools in Northern California. Elk Grove’s St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School is among those schools.

With the support of the Sacramento County Health Department, the testing program began in October with weekly testing at two Sacramento high schools so students could return to school for in-person learning twice a week.

The testing program for middle schoolers attending school fulltime began in December. About 400 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders and their teachers from five local schools were tested. Students from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton were among those tested.

The second phase of the pilot program is now in progress at all Catholic elementary schools in Sacramento and Solano Counties.

Synder said that just under 2,000 students and school employees were tested on Jan. 3-4, and he noted that 600 tests were conducted at St. Francis High School.

Based on the most recent results, the diocese will figure out the future testing strategy. A key player is Dr. Rusty Oshita, a physician who first suggested testing at Jesuit High School. He owns the local Urgent Care Now clinics, which has been administering the tests.

Schools reopening

As happened throughout the state, all the diocesan schools were closed last March. Seeing the Elk Grove Unified School District close a week earlier gave Snyder and his staff a week to prepare.

“We transitioned to distance learning in one day,” he said.

After the closure and during the summer, Snyder and his staff prepared to safely reopen the schools that fall by developing rigorous hygienic protocols. They include daily temperature and symptom screening, mask wearing, hand washing, plexiglass barriers and educating the kids in small groups that are kept separate from each other. They also established procedures after a child or employee tests positive, including a contact tracer at each school.

Snyder was convinced it was better to keep the kids in a safe environment where they could learn better and have the emotional and social benefits of being together. Nevertheless, the diocese planned to continue its robust distance learning program for families keeping their kids at home.

Snyder said several Catholic schools in small counties up north were able to open the first day of school. In Sacramento, Snyder had to seek a waiver from the county health department, but he was able to open the 16 local elementary schools the third week in September.

After the county was taken off the watch list in October, the diocese was able to reopen school for middle and high school students. Kindergarten and grades one through eight attend elementary school, and grades nine through 12 attend high school.

“Once they reopened, they didn’t have to close again, even if the county went back on the purple list,” Snyder said.

He noted the diocese has multiple things working together to make the schools as safe as possible.

“With our questionnaire about behaviors, daily temperature and symptoms screening, plus the masks, the distance, the PPE, the hygiene plus the testing, all of these add up to us having a pretty high degree of confidence we are really slowing down the disease,” Synder said.

Although a couple of COVID-19 cases have been confirmed since the schools reopened, the numbers were reportedly minimal compared to community levels, the superintendent said.

The diocese also has quarantined one cohort, which was one class, and closed two schools for less than week, Synder said. When a couple cases surfaced in the week going into Thanksgiving, the diocese switched them to distance learning.

 “We are confident we have made the right choice in opening school for the kids. We have proven we can do it safely and with a far lower incidence of COVID than the general population,” Snyder said.

High school testing

When the three local high schools opened in October for in-person learning, it was under a hybrid model with two days on campus and two days of distance learning. Opening them was going to be much more complicated than the elementary schools because they have a bell schedule, and the students rotate through different groups.

“That’s where we started into this testing program,” Snyder said.

Oshita, a parent and alumnus, who owned an urgent care company, reached out and said they could increase safety with testing.

“Before they come on campus, they are tested, and everybody is getting tested weekly,” Snyder said. “Just statistically, it makes it much safer to have our kids on campus going through rotations.”

 “Sacramento County Health Department also was very supportive of the idea because they saw the benefits,” he said. “They have helped us out with test kits and giving us a lot of support behind the scenes to make the program work.”

While St. Francis High School is under Snyder’s purview, Jesuit and Christian Brothers High Schools are not, because they are operated by separate religious orders and have their own school boards. Jesuit participated in the testing program. But Snyder was unaware of any testing at Christian Brothers.

Middle school testing

The high school testing was so successful, the diocese decided to try a pilot program for middle school kids, adding sixth grade to the seventh and eighth grades.

 “As kids mature, they start getting COVID more like adults, and sixth grade seems to be one of those tipping points,” Snyder said.

About 400 students and their teachers were tested in the three weeks following Thanksgiving. The diocese used a questionnaire to screen for kids who wanted to be on campus and who hadn’t traveled or socialized with big groups over the Thanksgiving holiday. The other students were asked to distance learn for 14 days. The drive-up testing took place in the Jesuit parking lot.

 “We did testing three weeks in a row, over 1,000 tests, and we only had one positive,” Snyder said. “It affirms two things. People who stay socially distant and don’t travel are less likely to get COVID…It also increases the confidence of our teachers to know they are coming to a campus where everyone in their group tested negative.”

The Diocese decided to test again after Christmas. The group was expanded to all the middle school age students in the greater Sacramento area, including Solano County.  They were to be tested Jan. 3 and 10 in the St. Francis and Jesuit parking lots plus at three of the most distant schools.

Snyder expects the January testing results to provide a baseline to see where they are at.

“If we see a high number of cases, we will be able to continue the program, but if we don’t have any positives, we may do spot checks,” he said. “But we are going to make that decision together with our doctors and county health after we get the data from the first two weeks.”

Distance learning

Snyder stressed that the diocese and its teachers continue to accommodate families who want to keep their kids at home with distance learning.

“All of our teachers are doing what we call dual delivery. They are teaching kids in class and at home at the same time,” he said. “That means the teachers have really done a lot of heavy lifting this year to make it work.”

Snyder was asked the ratio of in-person versus distance learners. He said it varies by community and grade level.

“On average, we’ve had about 70 percent of our kids in class at the elementary and middle school levels,” he said. “At the high schools, it is probably closer to half.”

While high school students are more capable of working independently and unsupervised, “a lot of parents see their teenagers as needing that on-campus experience,” he said.

Snyder said a recent outbreak of COVID occurred in Rancho Murieta and affected high school students who were not in class.

“Just because kids are at home doesn’t mean they are not necessarily going to be socializing and giving it to each other,” he said.

Snyder said the latest advice coming from the World Health Organization, the CDC and even the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) is that they want kids in school where they are supervised and supported.  

“The CDPH is way more worried about depression and self-harm than they are about COVID in kids under age 18,” he said.

Snyder also worries about his communities where parents depend on service jobs or hourly wages.

“When kids are in school, their parents, and their mothers in particular, don’t have to give up their careers,” he said. “I feel a strong sense of duty to do it right.”