Rapid COVID-19 tests a potential tool in safely returning to campuses
Test results are reliable, delivered in 15 minutes and a fraction of the cost of PCR tests
The California Department of Education explored how rapid COVID-19 tests are a tool that can aid in the safe reopening schools during a March 10 webinar. The event focused on the use of Abbott Laboratories’ BinaxNOW tests, which deliver results in 15 minutes and cost just $5 each.

A pilot program on the testing strategy and how it prevents the spread of the disease is currently taking place in 11 school districts across the state. The tests will also be used at the three State Special Schools, where students often reside for the duration of the week.

Dr. Charity Dean, an epidemiologist and CEO and co-founder of the Public Health Company, explained that there are three main types of tests for the novel coronavirus: nucleic acid tests (PCR), antigen tests and serological (antibody) tests. BinaxNOW is an antigen test that detects infection with very high accuracy. It can be self-administered by most students and staff and involves swabbing the inside of each nostril for a few seconds.

The low price point for the tests can make it easier to perform more frequently, Dean noted. “We know from various models that have been produced on the virus that the frequency of testing, taken from 14 days to every seven says to every three days, has a huge difference on ensuring that you find people who are infectious and remove them from the population.”

Rapid testing, however, is only a piece of an overarching public health strategy, Dean said. It should be used alongside social distancing, masks, cohorting, surface and hand hygiene, air filtration, quarantine and/or isolation when needed, and vaccines.

Implementing and funding rapid testing programs
Dr. Tony Iton, senior vice president of Healthy Communities at the California Endowment, helped launch the Safely Opening Schools pilot effort and said the three things a district needs to effectively launch a program are test kits, training for staff and a software system to manage and report test results.

“As it stands right now, the state has five million of those [tests] in a warehouse,” Iton said, estimating that the pilot is using about half a million. “We’re going to need more than that if many, many school districts decide to take on this option, and we are now working on a strategy with Abbott to purchase more.”

Districts would also need a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments waiver physician, which is typically the county health officer, but Iton said the Endowment also worked with the state Department of Public Health so that a statewide CLIA physician is available to support schools.

So far, the pilot schools have shown low levels of positive results. “We think that schools are today the safest place in the community for children to be,” Iton said. “We think with this testing, it will be even safer for students and for teachers and staff.”

Free resources are being given to pilot districts and schools working with CDPH. Similar support could be offered to all interested districts in the future. “What is this going to cost the schools? Right now, it’s actually pretty cheap because we’re supporting the tests and platforms and thanks to Superintendent Thurmond, we’re trying to negotiate with the state to get access to these resources for schools for free,” Iton said.

More information on testing resources can be found at Districts can contact CDE at with any questions.