Coronavirus (Fusion Medical Animation via Unsplash)

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN and TALIA WIENER
hochman@montclairlocal.news
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Montclair schools will “pause” plans to begin voluntary pooled coronavirus testing, previously expected to begin Tuesday.

Schools superintendent Jonathan Ponds, in Friday evening’s edition of his weekly message to the school community, said the pause was out of an “abundance of caution” after the district was sent an article about testing provider Ginkgo Bioworks published in BioSpace.

As described by that and other articles in financial industry press, Ginkgo Bioworks’ stock plummeted this week after activist short seller group Scorpion Capitol accused the company of engaging in a financial “shell game” and called its business operations a “Frankenstein mash-up of the worst frauds of the last 20 years.” Law firm Block & Leviton is investigating the allegations as well. Gingko went public in September.

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In his message to the community, Ponds stressed Ginkgo is a state-approved vendor, and said the district was pleased with pooled testing services Ginkgo provided last school year.

“I have been in contact with the company regarding the article, and they are writing us a response with regards to this,” the superintendent wrote. “I will share their response with you as soon as it becomes available.”

Ponds also said the district has six nurses on board to help administer testing when it begins.

The district had planned to start the voluntary, opt-in testing program Tuesday, after the Board of Education approved a contract with Ginkgo Wednesday, Oct. 6. Some board members expressed concern about the quick turnaround time for getting consent forms returned through the district’s online portal, Genesis, before testing would begin, noting Monday is a day off for students. But since the consent process is already familiar to families from last year, the process should move quickly, Felice Harrison-Crawford, the district’s assistant superintendent of operations and school support services, said at the Oct. 6 meeting.

Ponds said families of 58% of the student population had indicated a willingness to participate in testing in what district officials described as “pre-consent” forms. Those forms don’t count as an official opt-in to the program.

Some board members and parents had also argued over the last several weeks for an opt-out system — where students would be tested by default, unless their families explicitly chose to withdraw them for participation. But Ponds has said an opt-in system better respects families’ rights to be informed about medical procedures. 

In pooled testing, participating students and staff members in a given classroom will self-administer a nasal swab, and all swabs will be placed in a combined container. The technique isn’t used as an individual diagnostic, but to spot coronavirus in a population. If a positive test is found in a pool, the students in the pool will be given rapid antigen tests, a representative of Gingko Bsaid at a previous board meeting. 

The district planned to conduct the testing outdoors, under tents.

Ponds had said in a Sept. 24 community bulletin that testing will take place weekly. He’d previously said the district would prioritize weekly tests for elementary school students as well as sixth and seventh graders (some of whom are too young to be vaccinated), and other students would follow after that. Montclair Local has sent his office a message seeking clarification on the schedule and is awaiting a response.

The Gingko Bioworks contract totals $287,302. Of that, $10,980 pays for 726 rapid antigen test kits. The contract runs for 11 weeks with a possible extension. The district will reassess the testing needs and mandates from the state once the 11 weeks have passed, Ponds said. 

Testing costs will be covered by existing funding from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, Ponds said at the Oct. 7 meeting. The district will be reimbursed by the state for at least some of the testing costs, but a timeline for that reimbursement has not been set, he said.

Elementary school students will be grouped by class, and middle and high school students will be grouped by homeroom, Harrison-Crawford said at the meeting. A team of one to two Gingko staff members will assist the school nurses with conducting the tests. They will be wearing proper personal protective equipment, she said. 

“We trust Ginkgo in their process and procedures for helping, making sure that we do this in a protected manner,” Ponds said at the meeting. “Just like when you go into a doctor’s office, it’ll be the same stuff to make sure our students are taken care of.”