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Snohomish schools partner with UW for COVID-19 testing and tracing

Volunteers in the Snohomish School District will undergo testing and contact tracing to determine how to best prevent COVID-19 outbreaks.

SNOHOMISH, Wash. — Like other school districts, Snohomish schools have implemented new hygiene, social distancing and ventilation protocols for the small number of students who have returned to class. But those only go so far.

With that in mind, for the first time, all of the district's elementary schools are partnering with University of Washington researchers to see if there are better ways to make schools safer from COVID-19 outbreaks.

"Personally, I've been a little more reluctant to go back, but in looking at the needs of our students, I want to see them get back," said Elizabeth Harms, a Snohomish School District assistant.

At the Snohomish elementary schools, the University of Washington is studying whether regular testing stops outbreaks before they spread, which would allow more schools to open.

Volunteer students and staffers will get tested every week. They'll take the tests at home and drop their swabs in bins placed at schools. Positive tests will trigger contact tracing.

It's a science experiment Harms never thought she'd see in one of her classrooms.

"I was a little anxious about getting the test," she said. "But it was negative and it makes me feel safer for my co-workers and students."

"This could have real implications for how you roll this out nationwide," said UW's Dr. Helen Chu.

She said studies in other countries have shown schools are safe for kids with the proper protocols in place.

Asymptomatic spreaders are the wildcard in the coronavirus equation. Chu believes this study will help identify them more quickly.

"Our hope is if we find these asymptomatics early and contain the spread then we prevent a larger transmission event. Really, a strategy where you can identify cases early is the key to preventing outbreaks," Chu said.

The plan is for students or staff who test positive to isolate before returning to the classroom, limiting those exposed. 

The study brings some peace of mind for Harms as she heads into the unknown — part of a science experiment that aims to bring safer classrooms to everybody.

'We're just rolling with it day by day," she said. "It just feels great, like coming home."

RELATED: Washington could tie school district COVID-19 relief to campus return plan

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