Pipeline diagnostics

A team of medical personnel with Pipeline Medical arrived Sept. 27 in Santa Maria to assist the Santa Maria-Bonita School District with COVID-19 testing for students and staff.

Santa Maria's largest elementary school district is ramping up COVID-19 testing efforts to reduce spread of the virus throughout classrooms as well as facilitate testing opportunities for staff who have opted out of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The Santa Maria-Bonita School District, comprised of 21 schools and approximately 17,000 pre-K to eighth grade students, saw a surge of positive COVID cases among students at the beginning of the school year but has since seen case rates slow.

According to Superintendent Luke Ontiveros, the district has seen 214 positive student cases and 48 staff cases since Aug. 5. Over 100 student cases were reported during the week leading up the start of school, but just 70 have been reported in the past five weeks.

"We're seeing that trajectory is declining, just like on the county cases," said Ontiveros, noting the surge in Santa Barbara County COVID-19 cases that peaked in August and have since trended downward.

In order to detect student and staff cases early, the district has contracted with Inspire Diagnostics, Heal 360 and Pipeline Medical to offer PCR and rapid testing from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday at four main school sites — Liberty Elementary and El Camino, Fesler and Tommie Kunst junior high schools — with roaming clinics available at other school sites throughout the week.

A team of nurses with Pipeline Medical set up shop with the district on Sept. 27, and will be assisting with testing for the next seven months.

The on-campus testing services allow students who may have been exposed to COVID-19 in the classroom to complete a "modified quarantine" where they continue attending classes while being tested twice a week, according to Matt Beecher, business services deputy superintendent.

This strategy prevents students from having to miss class due to COVID-19 exposure, although parents can opt to keep their kids at home during the quarantine period as well.

"The value is, in that modified quarantine, if two students are in close contact while wearing masks in an indoor K-12 setting, they're allowed to serve their 10-day quarantine in the classroom if they get tested. They have that for free at the site while not missing any school," Beecher said.

He described one situation with a positive student COVID-19 case on Wednesday, in which a team was notified and came to the school site to immediately provide testing to parents and students who may have been exposed.

The majority of district students are learning on campus, with just over 140 students currently using the district's independent study model.

Beginning Friday, the school-based testing will also be used by hundreds of district staff who have not submitted proof of full COVID-19 vaccination, in compliance with state health orders.

As of Wednesday, 1,331, or 69%, of the district's 1,921 total employees had submitted proof of vaccination, 254 had reported that they were not vaccinated, and 336 had not responded, according to Ontiveros.

Those who have not responded or attested to being unvaccinated will be required to be tested weekly as a condition of employment, and if they decline to do so, will be placed on unpaid administrative leave until they provide proof of testing or vaccination.

"It’s not disciplinary; they still have access to their job. It’s just similar to any other teaching credential," Ontiveros said. "This is a requirement of law that’s in place that we have to follow. We know at some point in time we’re gonna come across someone who is adamant against [it]. It's not an either or, it's either you do it or you don't work." 

COVID-19 testing can be scheduled for students and staff online via inspirediagnostics.com/santa-maria-bonita-school-district.

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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