By Dan Rosenfeld
On Monday, September 13, 2021 the NYC Test & Trace Corps began our second school year of surveillance testing, ready to help protect over one million students and staff in our public schools. One of the largest surveillance testing programs in the world, our program began in earnest last October when public schools reopened. Since then, NYC has conducted over 1.5 million tests in schools, supporting one of the earliest in-person reopening of any major city in the nation. As the Senior Data Manager for the School Testing team on the Data, Analytics and Product team, I’d like to share a bit about how our operation works, and what we’ve learned over the last year.
Beginning before dawn, medical assistants from our four partner testing providers get ready to crisscross the city, reaching over 500 schools on a single day in total. Each testing provider has a separate territory, assigned by school district. The medical assistants arrive as schools open and begin testing in a predetermined, well-ventilated area, as principals send a subset of staff and students for testing according to a randomly generated order determined by the Department of Education, to ensure we are getting an unbiased representative sample. After reaching a testing threshold that represents a certain percentage of the in-school population, medical assistants collect the samples and submit them to a partner reference laboratory for processing. Each testing provider submits test results to the Department of Education COVID-19 Situation Room, where additional investigation is done to determine if certain positive cases amount to localized outbreaks, which could lead to temporary school or classroom closures to ensure that COVID-19 is not circulating within the school.
The different testing providers communicate results directly to students and staff, while Test & Trace Corps contact tracers reach out to positive cases and contacts to ensure that appropriate quarantine and isolation protocols are followed. The results are also made publicly available at https://testingresults.schools.nyc/, where anyone can see our school visits and accompanying metrics. The goal is to make sure that students, staff, and parents feel that schools are as safe as they possibly can be during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While this pandemic experience has been unprecedented, much of the work reminds me of my past jobs with the City, working on efforts like Pre-K for All and NYC Census 2020. Organizing communication and data flows between different parts of the government is always crucial when setting up any wide scale operation to deliver services, and school surveillance testing is no different. Getting the correct testing list for each school to each testing provider has not ended up being all that dissimilar from making sure that census partner non-profits had correct census call and text lists during the early stages of the pandemic. Improving and automating our data operations from humble origins to a fully integrated database system echoes much of the work that my data team did to support Pre-K for All. Most importantly, cultivating the right partners who aid in community buy-in has been essential.
In that task, I am aided by the school communications team, who directly communicate with the thousands of school employees who need to prepare their schools for testing. Their partnership has resulted in a strong working relationship between the schools and the testing providers, especially since making over 500 school visits a day and testing thousands of children and adults is a logistical feat. Throughout, everyone has proved remarkably adaptive.
The world is still very different than it was before 2020, but already school testing has a set rhythm that makes me excited for this upcoming school year. For my team and I, each school day plays out in more or less the same way. Our data team first compiles the testing lists, then securely sends them out to the testing providers. The testing providers and schools then test the designated individuals on the lists. The samples get processed, the results come in, and my team sends out reports at the end of every school day. For me, I am glad that New Yorkers will be able to count on a system that is doing its absolute best to protect our schools, at a time when our children need them the most.