1. In many regions, schools have returned to in-person teaching. What role does the TIC Sector play in ensuring a safe return for students, teachers and staff?
Re-opening schools safely is vital from an educational, mental and physical health, social and economic point of view. We are seeing that less advantaged students are falling disproportionately behind their peers under remote studying, and many family incomes have been destabilised by the need to stay at home with school-age children.
The return to in-person teaching in many parts of the world has therefore come as a welcome step, but for many, this is not without some hesitancy. A number of variables – such as national child vaccination policies, regional infection and vaccination rates, and the threat of new variants – has made it difficult to predict the full picture of in-person teaching. It is therefore the role of the TIC Sector to contribute to making sure that this reality is as safe and conductive to learning as possible, while reassuring the general population that educational institutions have the right support to welcome them back. And, indeed, U.S. studies have shown that testing in schools can boost teacher and parent confidence in in-person learning from around 20% to over 80%.
Practically speaking, this means facilitating the right balance between vaccination and residual caution, especially while questions still remain as to how easily vaccinated persons can carry and pass on the virus. TIC companies are achieving this through a combination of clinical testing of staff and students, environment testing, and consulting with schools to support them in setting up the right protocols and hygiene measures. The TIC Sector plays an important role from start to finish, from liaising with authorities on developing and applying local regulations, to helping schools to function safely within these.
2. Could you tell us more about Eurofins’ SAFER@WORK™ programme and its contribution to the education sector?
Our SAFER@WORK™ programme was launched as a one-stop-shop offering in May 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a combination of services from the Clinical Diagnostics, Environment Testing, Genomics and Assurance business lines, the programme is ultimately designed to support a variety of public bodies, organisations, companies, institutions and more to implement the appropriate risk management to help keep their spaces free of the virus.
The education sector is one of the important sectors with which we partner, having begun work on school testing back in spring of this year. Eurofins typically works with the elementary and middle school age group, but we are also supporting several universities, for example.
Programmes are customised to each educational institution, based on their needs and local regulations, but typically these include self-sample PCR testing, conducted at home or at school. The samples are then pooled for laboratory analysis to reduce cost and increase throughput. In the event of a positive result, individual samples – which would usually be four or five per pool, or more in areas of low virus prevalence – can be re-tested without any need for resampling. The results are then reported before the pupils return the following morning, so that focused isolations can be put in place quickly.
PCR testing can also be supported by rapid antigen testing in situations where an immediate result is required, or for pupils to quickly test themselves at home before returning to school after each vacation period. Environmental monitoring, such as testing of wastewater and surfaces, is also an effective tool for schools in areas with low incidence rates. Communities in Denmark, for example, have seen success with this method.
3. In cases of COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, which steps should be taken?
This is often dictated at regional or national level by the relevant authorities. Whether or not younger age groups can have access to the vaccine, and whether or not vaccinated ‘close contacts’ have to self-isolate (and if so, for how long), varies by geography. We have seen in the past that school outbreaks can lead to a cycle of large-group isolations, entailing staff shortages and a significant number of pupils having to learn from home. However, our SAFER@WORK™ colleagues, among other members of the TIC industry, have worked with various authorities on better defining these protocols and reducing their impact on the education sector. The aim is, of course, to reduce transmission risk and keep contact tracing simple and accurate, thus keeping self-isolation to a minimum in instances of positive results.
4. What are the main challenges to maintaining a safe environment in crowded areas (e.g. hallways and canteens), where social distancing is not always possible? Are there feasible solutions?
Where social distancing cannot be ensured, schools should place greater emphasis on other safety protocols, such as mask-wearing and ‘cohorting’, so that pupils are mixing with a defined set of peers. These are feasible ways to contain outbreaks. Sometimes, such measures are a legal requirement and we can support schools with their implementation, but we are already seeing some jurisdictions remove mask requirements in schools, for instance. The task is then to consult closely with schools on the specific risks of their school layout and activities.
5. For the younger age groups, how does the TIC Sector ensure that testing and hygiene protocols are ‘child-friendly’?
There are several alternatives to the invasive nasal PCR tests, which can be more difficult to administer on younger patients. However, the validity of these for school testing depends on local regulations. For example, France has already approved saliva testing exclusively for this purpose, due to its ease of use with children. Eurofins SAFER@WORK™ recently expanded its PCR ‘lollipop’ saliva test to hundreds of thousands of pupils in Germany, too, which involves circulating a swab around the mouth so that saliva is absorbed for analysis. There is also great potential for PCR saline gargle tests, currently approved for school testing in some European countries.
6. How else does working with schools differ from working with other sectors?
You have to bear in mind that you are working with people who often do not have any background in testing and hygiene protocols, so clear communication is all the more important. Teachers, school admin staff and parents need training, as they’re often involved in the sample collection. Logistics have to be significantly simplified, and we have developed a lot of training videos and communication collateral to make the entire process as easy and effortless as possible.
The second challenge is turnaround time (TAT). Commercially available tests do not usually offer the kind of TAT needed to protect school pupils and staff – that is, results must be received before they return to campus the following day. We therefore aim to deliver all test results no later than 6am the following morning.
Globally, from an age perspective, children and teenagers are among those with the most limited access to the vaccine, as their inclusion in roll-out programmes still varies widely by country – and, although there are countries that require all or certain workers to be vaccinated, this is not currently mandated in most, meaning vaccination rates among the adult population, i.e. school staff, can still differ significantly across localities. This means that while other sectors and environments may be well placed to scale down their testing programmes in place of other measures, such as ‘COVID passes’ or environmental monitoring, we are still looking towards regular testing as a critical tool in ensuring the safe resumption of the education sector.