WUSM’s new COVID-19 testing grant focuses on children with disabilities through a partnership with the Special School District of St. Louis

Grace Kennard | Staff Reporter

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine received a $5 million, two-year grant to provide 50,000 saliva COVID-19 tests to students, staff and teachers at schools in the St. Louis area. The recipients of this new testing initiative will be six special education schools, which are operated by the Special School District.

The tests, which are the same ones that the University offers to its students, will be voluntary and offered weekly to students, teachers and staff over the course of the school year. The first tests have already been administered. This initiative will reach around 750 families with children in kindergarten through 12th grade in the district.

“At this time, three weeks into the voluntary study, it has only been rolled out to staff,” Elizabeth Keenan, the SSD superintendent, wrote in a statement to Student Life. “We have about 60% of our SSD schools’ staff participating in the study according to Wash. U. researcher Dr. Joyce Balls-Berry. It is my understanding that the voluntary study will roll out to students in January.”

Children with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, particularly those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, because they rely on daily structure and in-person support for growth. Additionally, many of these children experience underlying medical conditions which puts them at greater risk for developing COVID-19 and more severe complications of the virus.

The funding for this grant stems from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics-Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) initiative. NIH awarded $300 million to thirty-two medical centers around the country in a push to provide rapid COVID-19 testing to underserved communities.

“When COVID struck, the government decided that they needed to do a lot more investment in testing and getting testing out to the community,” Dr. Christina Gurnett, one of the grant’s principal investigators, said. “So they put $300 million into this RADx-UP project, which is to encourage testing and underserved populations…They were very interested in having funding go through our IDDRC [Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center] mechanism, which means that we kind of already have people who have existing relationships with the community by which we could do some of those testing.”

Gurnett, the director of the Division of Pediatric and Developmental Neurology, along with Dr. Jason Newland, a professor of pediatrics, brought vital and diverse expertise to this project as its two principal investigators.

“I have the background taking care of kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities [and] Jason is an infectious disease expert with some experience also in going out into the community and thinking about infectious disease and…all the mitigation strategies for preventing those in the community,” Gurnett said.

The pandemic has created a disturbance to classroom learning for all students, but virtual teaching has been particularly difficult for students with disabilities. Fortunately, the SSD was able to welcome students back to partial in-person learning in November, after having been closed for several months. Newland assisted several school districts in the area with reopening plans and says that now that more is known about the virus, schools have an avenue to safely operate.

“At this point in time in schools, most schools, if they do the mitigation strategies, use the masking, distancing, washing your hands, don’t come to school if you’re sick,” Newland said. “You just don’t see a lot of secondary transmission, and national data would suggest when your community transmissions [are] up, of course you can have some more kids in the school that are positive, because they live in the community.”

Keenan emphasized the resilience and innovation of SSD faculty and staff in the pivot to virtual learning. “SSD’s teachers and staff rose to the challenge and came up with innovative ways to transfer student IEPs [Individualized Education Programs] to fit the virtual learning environment so that they were able to continue receiving the instruction and essential resources,” she said. “Our staff are continually working to improve virtual learning to ensure it provides the support and instructional quality our students would receive in-person at school.”

Newland hopes that the program can help create a better space for learning in addition to promoting safety.

“The indirect impact could be great if it keeps the kids in school longer and if it provides safety and comfort to the educators who deserve that so that they can provide the best education possible during one of the most troublesome times anybody’s ever experienced in the school setting,” he said.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page rolled out a new “safer at home” initiative, Nov. 13, that effectively shut down indoor dining at restaurants and bars, among other public health orders.

Newland acknowledged the burden this mandate has placed on many businesses, but suggested finding innovative solutions, pointing to World War II when many companies found new business making products for the war effort.

“Why not take some restaurants and bars and turn them into a classroom?” Newland asked. “There’s definitely schools that could use some space. You just make it an extra level safer, but can you use it for something else that helps mitigate what we’re doing.”

Chancellor Andrew Martin’s message that Washington University is “in St. Louis, for St. Louis” resonated strongly with Gurnett, who noted that the partnership with SSD was a great example of putting this principle into practice.

“The Special School District serves a really broad community,” she said. “…So I feel like we’re not only reaching kids who are extremely vulnerable given their disabilities, but we’re reaching just a really broad swath of the population.”

Both Newland and Gurnett hope this grant and partnership raises awareness about this vulnerable population, whose struggles are not often recognized or understood.

“I don’t think society even recognizes the fact that there is the number of kids with intellectual developmental disabilities,” Newland said.

“[I hope] the community knows that Washington University is here as a partner and that we’re not going away. We want to have sustainable relationships with our community,” Gurnett said.

Keenan echoed this excitement from the other side of the partnership.

“The Special School District is delighted to partner with Washington University on this study, whose goal is to reduce health disparities for vulnerable and underserved populations that are disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” she said. “The information gleaned from this study has the potential to benefit not only our students, but also children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, their parents and the staff throughout the country.”

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