A coronavirus testing site will be set up next to Nishuane School Thursday, part of a parent-led effort to increase testing opportunities in the district. Students are seen here entering Nishuane on the first day of the 2021-2022 school year. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FILE PHOTO)

By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

An earlier version of this post incorrectly described the testing sites described below as at Montclair schools. They are at other sites, located near Montclair schools. 

A group of 11 Montclair parents are launching their own free coronavirus testing program for students, unsatisfied with testing plans put in place by the public school district. 

On Thursday, the group will launch the pilot testing program in collaboration with MedRite Urgent Care, offering after-school coronavirus testing sites next to Nishuane School, at Nishuane Park, and Hillside School, at Montclair Inn. Pre-registration will be available through the MedRite website, but walk-ups are also welcome. 

Parent Lani Sommer-Padilla said that as the school year began, she was concerned by news reports about a rise in the spread of coronavirus. She and other parents in the group knew the Montclair Board of Education was coming up with a plan for pooled coronavirus testing — where swab samples from multiple individuals are combined, to spot coronavirus in a population without the expense and time constraints of individual tests — but that it wouldn’t be starting right away, she said. District officials are hoping to award a contract for pooled testing at an Oct. 6 Board of Education meeting.

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“We just kind of had this thought that in the interim, maybe we as parents could come together and organize an effort to set up pop-up testing sites near each school as a way to kind of fill in the gaps,” Sommer-Padilla said. 

At the Sept. 1 Board of Education meeting, the group shared a list of concerns with the board regarding reopening, including several about testing protocols.

“Without adequate screening testing, our schools are likely to have outbreaks and need to close, adding tremendous disruption to students’ lives and learning,” the parents said in the note they sent to district officials.

So far, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said in a community message distributed Sept. 24, “we have only seen a very low number of cases, well under 10.” He said the community had been “outstanding in helping us mitigate the virus.”

PCR testing will be available to the public at the sites for two hours, with a focus on students and families. If a participant has insurance, MedRite will submit testing costs to the provider. If a participant does not have insurance, MedRite will file for reimbursement with the federal government, under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. 

Test results will be back within 36 hours, Senior Vice President of MedRite Urgent Care Bill Miller said. Anyone under the age of 18 will need written consent from a guardian each time they are tested, Miller said. 

“It really benefits not just the school community that it’s centered around, but it’s also benefiting everyone else — a parent picking up their child can get a quick test, a grandparent can come by, I can bring my little one by and get tested and anyone else from the community,” Yana Robbins, one of the parents, said. “More testing is always, always good.”

Group member Kendra Johnson — who shares a name with a former Montclair superintendent, but is not related to her — said her children attended a summer camp at Montclair Kimberley Academy where weekly pooled testing was mandatory. According to materials posted to MKA’s website, in that system, students were required to submit their own swabs a week prior to attending camp. If coronavirus was found in a pool of 24 campers, the samples would next be split into pools of two campers for testing — and then those two families would be notified if a result came back positive. 

“When we were starting the school year, I didn’t have that same peace of mind because there was no baseline testing,” Johnson said. 

During this school year, Johnson said, she has been testing her children weekly at MedRite. 

This school year, MKA is conducting weekly pooled tests, required for all students and staff members. All employees are vaccinated and by Nov. 15, all students ages 16 and up must submit proof of vaccination. Vaccines will also be required for students ages 12 and older who participate in winter athletics.

Montclair schools have stepped up their own planned schedule for pooled testing, to eventually be available weekly to all students and staff — first prioritizing younger grades — on an opt-in basis. Per a state mandate from Gov. Phil Murphy, staff at all schools, public and private, are required to either submit proof of vaccination by Oct. 18 or be tested individually once or twice a week. 

Johnson said she reached out to other parents at the beginning of the year and told them that her kids would be tested weekly, and she hoped other parents would do the same.

“I got such a positive response to that,” Johnson said. “We realized that the community would really like something that was set up close to the schools and so working with everybody else and getting MedRite on board helped us to do something that it seems like the school community really, really wants.”

The group sent out a survey via Facebook groups and individual classroom WhatsApp groups to gauge interest in testing. Out of 269 respondents, 78% of parents and caregivers said they would like their children tested at least weekly, 60% of parents and caregivers said they would like to have their children tested at least once per week if there was a convenient location near their children’s schools, and 12% said that they would bring their child to those same locations every other week. 

“By and large parents want their children to be tested,” Sommer-Padilla said. “But the biggest obstacle to them is convenience.”

By placing testing sites close to schools and scheduling them after school, the group hopes to make testing accessible for Montclair families, but they know they still aren’t able to reach everyone, Sommer-Padilla said.

“Even with us being right next to the school, there are going to be parents whose children are in aftercare, or they don’t have somebody to bring them or the kids are taking the bus home or they have a babysitter,” Sommer-Padilla said. 

The Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence is working with the group to help get the word out about the new testing sites, MFEE Executive Director Masiel Rodriques-Vars said. 

“We see our role as always complimenting the work that the district is doing,” Rodriques-Vars said. “This work is just boosting what the district is doing.”

Moving forward, group members said they are looking to expand testing to other schools in the district, and possibly offer testing on weekends. The group is also meeting with Ponds this week to discuss possible collaboration moving forward.

“The sky is really the limit,” Johnson said. “It’s really about what the community wants, so we just want to make sure two places can run smoothly and then, obviously, there are ways that we can expand this program.”