UCLA Health receives $3 million NIH grant to study how COVID-19 testing can aid students’ return to classroom

‘The best strategies for COVID-19 testing of students and staff in schools to maximize safe, in-person learning remains an open question,’ says Dr. Mitchell Wong.

UCLA Health has received a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how regular COVID-19 testing can help get more students safely back into classrooms.

The goal is to reduce the pandemic-fueled harm that school closures have had on students’ academic progress, as well as their physical and mental health.

The research team is co-led by Moira Inkelas, PhD, professor of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and Mitchell Wong, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and health services research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

Influence of testing

The study focuses on the Los Angeles Unified School District. L.A. Unified has required periodic testing for all staff and students who come to campus, and policy may change as the pandemic evolves. UCLA researchers will assess how testing influences decisions to return to in-person vs. online classes and attendance rates.

“We know some parents may still be hesitant to send their kids back to school even though children 12 years and older are now eligible to receive the vaccine,” Dr. Wong said. “There’s still the group of younger children who at this time are not eligible for the vaccine. We also see that infections are a bit on the rise now in California with the Delta variant. The  best strategies for COVID-19 testing of students and staff in schools to maximize safe, in-person learning remains an open question.”

Dr. Mitchell Wong

The researchers also will work with analysts to examine rates of COVID-19 cases and interview parents about their safety perceptions and concerns.

“I’m excited to be a scientific partner of L.A. Unified,” Dr. Inkelas said. “It’s been a very rewarding experience to try to be responsive in real time to what their questions are. We designed the study to address questions of the school district.”

The grant for the two-year project was announced July 2 by the NIH as part of the Safe Return to School Diagnostic Testing Initiative, launched earlier this year through the NIH Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) program. 

A focus on vulnerable communities

“The new awards reaffirm NIH’s commitment to use evidence-based research to inform policy makers of the safest ways to return to schools in vulnerable and underserved communities,” Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable, MD, director of NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and co-chair of the RADx-UP program, said in the announcement.

L.A. Unified is the second largest school district in the U.S., with nearly 580,000 students. Among them, 74% are Latino, 10% are white, 8% are Black and 6% are Asian/Pacific Islander. Eighty percent of students receive free or reduced-price meals.

Dr. Inkelas said the district has been a leader in implementing testing since early in the pandemic.

The district also serves families who have been disproportionately hard hit by the pandemic, both in terms of higher rates of infections, hospitalizations and death, and educational losses. For instance, when schools closed in March 2020, only 60% of Latino and Black students in middle school participated regularly in online classes, compared to 80% of students who are white, Asian or multiracial.

Once schools reopened in April of this year, more elementary than middle and high school students returned for in-person instruction.

“Rates were quite low overall,” Dr. Inkelas said. “The areas that had been more impacted by COVID and had lower vaccination rates also had lower rates of return. We don’t know all the reasons for that.”

Dr. Moira Inkelas

The research team will talk to parents regularly over the next two years and consider how to share information regarding safety.

“A novel aspect of our study will involve interviews with parents to understand specifically how they are absorbing the information on testing and COVID risk and how that’s influencing their decision to send their child to school,” Dr. Wong said.

Dr. Inkelas said UCLA began collaborating with the district about the pandemic last summer, offering help on interpreting the science and looking at research.

“This will be the first time when they’ll have a very large number, hopefully, coming back to school so they’ll have a lot more data,” she said. “We’re able to be an extension of their team to provide deeper analysis as things progress.”

Overcoming pandemic disparities

Dr. Wong said he hopes the research will improve educational access for students most harmed by the disparities of the pandemic.

“Children who have not been able to go back to school for pretty much the entire year have been significantly impacted,” he said. “We’re excited about this project for the opportunity to figure out a way to increase access to in-person learning for all students, but particularly students of color.”

The broader team includes investigators from pediatrics as well as infectious disease, including Annabelle de St. Maurice, MD, co-chief Infection Prevention Officer for UCLA Health; David Goodman-Meza, MD, an assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases; and Omai Garner, PhD, director of clinical microbiology for UCLA Health.

Get the latest information on COVID-19 and the vaccine.

Courtney Perkes is the author of this article.

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