Civil and Environmental Engineering


Date of this Version



AMA Network Open. 2021;4(9):e2126447. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.26447




IMPORTANCE Scalable programs for school-based SARS-CoV-2 testing and surveillance are needed to guide in-person learning practices and inform risk assessments in kindergarten through 12th grade settings. OBJECTIVES To characterize SARS-CoV-2 infections in staff and students in an urban public school setting and evaluate test-based strategies to support ongoing risk assessment and mitigation for kindergarten through 12th grade in-person learning. DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS This pilot quality improvement program engaged 3 schools in Omaha, Nebraska, for weekly saliva polymerase chain reaction testing of staff and students participating in in-person learning over a 5-week period from November 9 to December 11, 2020. Wastewater, air, and surface samples were collected weekly and tested for SARS-CoV-2 RNA to evaluate surrogacy for case detection and interrogate transmission risk of in-building activities. MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES SARS-CoV-2 detection in saliva and environmental samples and risk factors for SARS-CoV-2 infection. RESULTS A total of 2885 supervised, self-collected saliva samples were tested from 458 asymptomatic staff members (mean [SD] age, 42.9 [12.4] years; 303 women [66.2%]; 25 Black or African American [5.5%], 83 Hispanic [18.1%], 312 White [68.1%], and 35 other or not provided [7.6%]) and 315 students (mean age, 14.2 [0.7] years; 151 female students [48%]; 20 Black or African American [6.3%], 201 Hispanic [63.8%], 75 White [23.8%], and 19 other race or not provided [6.0%]). A total of 46 cases of SARS-CoV-2 (22 students and 24 staff members) were detected, representing an increase in cumulative case detection rates from 1.2% (12 of 1000) to 7.0% (70 of 1000) among students and from 2.1% (21 of 1000) to 5.3% (53 of 1000) among staff compared with conventional reporting mechanisms during the pilot period. SARS-CoV-2 RNA was detected in wastewater samples from all pilot schools as well as in air samples collected from 2 choir rooms. Sequencing of 21 viral genomes in saliva specimens demonstrated minimal clustering associated with 1 school. Geographical analysis of SARS-CoV-2 cases reported district-wide demonstrated higher community risk in zip codes proximal to the pilot schools. CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE In this study of staff and students in 3 urban public schools in Omaha, Nebraska, weekly screening of asymptomatic staff and students by saliva polymerase chain reaction testing was associated with increased SARS-CoV-2 case detection, exceeding infection rates reported at the county level. Experiences differed among schools, and virus sequencing and geographical analyses suggested a dynamic interplay of school-based and community-derived transmission risk. Collectively, these findings provide insight into the performance and community value of test-based SARS-CoV-2 screening and surveillance strategies in the kindergarten through 12th grade educational setting.