Researchers Learn About Barriers, Benefits to COVID Testing for Students With Special Needs

Diversity; Public Health; Research

Whether to return children to in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a tough decision for many parents, but it’s been an especially difficult one for families whose children have special needs. Researchers at the Brown School Evaluation Center recently completed listening sessions with families and staff in the St. Louis Special School District to better understand the barriers to COVID testing. They came away with findings that inform what parents and staff are looking for in information and communication that can encourage testing as a way to reopen schools.​

“Our discussions with parents and staff gave us rich insight into the special challenges faced by families and schools alike,” said Nancy Mueller, director of the Evaluation Center. “The information we received is helping to guide our testing and communications protocols as our team conducts testing in the schools.”​

The 31 listening sessions were conducted last fall with 24 family members and 57 school staff as part of a larger study led by the Washington University School of Medicine in a partnership with the district, which serves students with special needs, including intellectual and developmental disabilities. The research is funded by a two-year, $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to the School of Medicine, which is offering weekly saliva-based COVID-19 tests to students, teachers and staff in the district’s six schools.​

Staff and parents shared similar benefits and similar concerns about returning to school in person. Many recognized the benefits of in-person learning, such as increased access to educational opportunities, care and therapies, as well as the enhanced social and emotional benefits of in-person class. Some, however, were still anxious, citing the challenges in implementing social hygiene and preventive measures at school, as well as the risk for more severe complications for students with special needs, were they to contract the virus.​

Families said the saliva-based testing helped keep schools safe and increased their comfort level for returning children to school. Many parents applauded the saliva tests, which were easier for many special-needs students than nasal swabs.​

“I just think having this option in any way, shape or form is fantastic,” one parent said. “And it completely increases my comfort level of sending my son to school in person.”​

Staff and parents alike voiced the need for frequent and consistent communication about evolving district policies and procedures, such as quarantine and contact tracing. “Providing information and providing it consistently to all students and parents is really essential right now,” one participant said. Trusted sources of information about district policies included school nurses, teachers, case managers and principals; for information about COVID, participants said they looked to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, primary care physicians and health professionals, and the Washington University research team.​/

Feedback from the listening sessions was used by research team members from the Health Communication Research Laboratory at the Brown School, who have crafted messages about testing that are now being delivered to parents, caregivers and school staff.​

Findings from the Evaluation Center’s listening sessions were compiled in a brief that has been shared with the district.​