A Covid-19 test swab is packaged up to be tested (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Students at eight Salem elementary schools will have the option to be tested weekly for Covid starting after winter break.

The free testing program is a pilot intended to monitor Covid spread and detect cases early in students. It’s part of a partnership between the Salem-Keizer School District and Santiam Hospital’s SCOPE lab, which works with other Marion County school districts to provide similar programs.

“They spit in a tube, drop it off at the school, then we pick it up at the school once a week,” said Sarah Comstock, a consulting scientist with the lab.

In Salem, the program will at first be available to students at Auburn, Eyre, Schirle, Chavez, Four Corners, Hoover, Washington and Yoshikai elementary schools, according to a Salem-Keizer School District message to parents sent Friday. Registration is open now.

Other than Schirle, all the selected schools are in north or east Salem, areas of Marion County which have recorded higher rates of Covid infection since the pandemic began.

District officials wanted to fine-tune the testing process at several schools, district spokesman Aaron Harada said. He said once surveillance testing is streamlined, it will be expanded to all district schools.

Aside from sharing information with parents, Harada said the schools have no role in the testing beyond serving as a collection site.

“The school will become the drop box for saliva,” Harada said.

Students whose parents sign them up will be mailed a monthly’s supply of test kits. Students can participate whether they’re vaccinated against Covid or not, and the enrollment form does not ask about vaccination status.

Registration forms are available online in English, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Swahili.

The tests used at the Santiam lab are polymerase chain reaction, or PCR tests, meaning they test for the presence of genetic material from the coronavirus.

Unlike many other PCR tests, the SCOPE lab uses saliva-based tests developed at Yale’s School of Public Health, rather than nasal swabs. Comstock said that simplifies processing.

Students will get results from their tests within 24 hours of samples arriving at the lab.

“Most of the time I have results that very same night,” Comstock said.

The lab is a partnership between Santiam Hospital and Corban University, where Comstock is an associate professor of biology.

Comstock said SCOPE has provided saliva-based Covid testing since October 2020, initially for college athletes in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana who were returning to play.

Since the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education announced they’d offer surveillance testing to Oregon schools at the start of the school year, Comstock said Santiam has partnered with other districts including Silverton, North Marion and North Santiam for surveillance testing.

Currently, about 300 students from those districts are enrolled in the testing program, Comstock said.

Comstock said the lab has the capacity to process about 3,000 tests daily and hopes to expand to other Salem schools soon.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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