Researchers Work with Parents, Teachers on COVID Testing to Enable Children with Disabilities to Safely Return to School

Community Engagement; Public Health; Research

Researchers at the Brown School are conducting discussion groups with parents and staff in the Special School District of St. Louis County (SSD) to develop communication tools surrounding COVID-19 testing and vaccination. The research is funded by a two-year, $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to the Washington University School of Medicine to offer 50,000 saliva tests to students, teachers and staff in the six special education schools operated by the district.

The grant will serve about 750 families in the district who have children in kindergarten through the 12th grade. The saliva tests will be voluntary and offered weekly to teachers, staff and students over the next year.

The pandemic has disproportionately impacted students with special needs, especially those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, in part because they rely on daily structure and in-person support for learning and social growth. Due to underlying medical conditions experienced by many such students, this student population is at a higher risk for developing COVID-19 and severe complications of the virus.

“The widespread closure of schools has particularly impacted the well-being of these children,” said Jason Newland, MD, co-principal investigator of the project and a professor of pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the School of Medicine. He has advised multiple school districts in Missouri on plans for reopening schools. “It is a major priority to get children with disabilities back into the schools while providing a safe environment for the students and staff, and a key component of achieving this goal is ample testing that can rapidly detect COVID-19 infections within the school community.”

The Brown School’s role will be to assess the perspectives of parents and school staff to develop messaging that can encourage participation in regular testing and overcome barriers to it.

“Our discussion groups are underway and have already provided valuable insights to inform communication with parents, teachers and staff. This information is also helping to shape the testing process being implemented in the schools by our medical school colleagues,” said Nancy Mueller, director of the Brown School Evaluation Center and an assistant dean who is leading that part of the research. “We hope that our findings can be useful not only for COVID testing but also for vaccinations to provide protection from the virus in the future.” Participating Brown School faculty include Charlene Caburnay, research assistant professor and co-director of the Health Communication Research Laboratory; Virginia McKay, research assistant professor; and Byron Powell, assistant professor.

The funding stems from $500 million awarded by the NIH National Institutes of Health as part of the agency’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) initiative to provide underserved communities with rapid testing for COVID-19. The money was part of the CARES Act passed by Congress to respond to the pandemic.

The saliva test provides easy and fast testing with same-day results, ideal for screening large communities. It was developed by the School of Medicine’s Department of Genetics and the McDonnell Genome Institute, in collaboration with a biotechnology company.

“The Special School District is eager to partner with Washington University to improve the lives of students with disabilities, especially during this time of COVID,” said Elizabeth Keenan, Ph.D., SSD’s superintendent.

SSD’s special education schools serve students from all school districts in St. Louis County, including those residing in socioeconomically stressed neighborhoods, where many families have heightened exposure to COVID-19, as well as disproportionate vulnerability to its most serious consequences. SSD’s students returned part-time to in-person learning in November.