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Oregon's weekly COVID-19 testing program for students off to a slow start

The program is free and open to any school district in the state.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland Public Schools (PPS) started offering weekly COVID-19 testing on Friday as part of a statewide program to identify students who have COVID-19 but are not showing symptoms.

The district started the day collecting saliva samples at Whitman Elementary School in Southeast Portland.

Children walked up to a cooler on a table outside the school’s front door and dropped in a plastic bag that held a small, closed tube with some of their spit. They spit into the tube at home just after waking up and before brushing teeth or eating anything.

The elementary children are pioneers in what many hope will become a widespread and routine process to find cases of COVID in students who have no symptoms.

“It's a great program,” said Brenda Martinek, chief of student support services for the district's 50,000 students.

“I encourage as many families that feel safe or want to sign up for them to sign up,” she said.

RELATED: Portland Public Schools considers COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students

Martinek said about 3,300 families have signed up citywide so far. A small of Whitman Elementary's 185 students are participating. 

“Currently we have eight ... not very many so we’re gonna do another push," Martinek said. 

The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and Oregon Department of Education are making weekly COVID testing available to every district in the state for free. The program being paid for with federal money.

The OHA created a video showing kids how to spit in a tube first thing in the morning before bringing their sample to school.

So far, 75% of the school districts in Oregon have declined the offer. One of them is the Hermiston School District. With 5,500 students, it is the largest school district in Eastern Oregon.

Superintendent Tricia Mooney said the decision was made based on logistics.

"By the time the individual takes the test, it gets sent away, it comes back to us, we’re five or so days out and we just didn’t feel like that — in trying to stop the spread, that’s five or so days that we have someone that is in a classroom with students,” she said.

Instead, she said the district will rely on athletic testing for students playing winter sports including basketball and wrestling. Those students will be tested twice a week.

RELATED: At-home COVID-19 tests are getting difficult to find for some

Closer to Portland, districts like Lake Oswego are excited to launch the program.

“Our collection days will be on Wednesdays and we are starting — our first collection day will be Wednesday, Oct. 13,” said Mary Kay Larson, a district spokesperson.

Each school taking part in the program will get a collection container. Directions on how and when to collect the saliva sample are included in the kit but must be in a language the child and parents understand. In Portland, that has meant translating the directions into six languages.

The participating districts and schools had to figure out when and where they would hand out the collection kits and whether that effort would include just one week or multiple weeks’ worth of collection containers.

In the Portland area, districts needed to coordinate with Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) to see when a courier could come by and collect the containers.

Then schools had to figure out where they could put the main collection cooler and make sure students knew to collect their spit sample that morning before depositing it at school.

On top of all that, OHSU needed all the names and contact information of the students and families taking part so OHSU could contact them directly within 48 hours after running the samples through their lab and leave it up to the families to notify the school of positive findings.

Several districts said it’s taken awhile to get this program going because of the logistics involved.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” said Hillsboro School District spokesperson Beth Graser.

RELATED: State reports virus cases at more than 50 Central Oregon schools

But many of the big districts in the Portland area are now ready to go, including in Hillsboro.

“We are ready to launch our pilot program among elementary school students and that is going to start at Indian Hills Elementary, Imlay Elementary and West Union Elementary. Information is being sent out [Oct. 1] with the first weekend of tests happening the week of Oct. 11,” said Graser.

In addition to OHSU, University of Oregon and Santiam Hospital are testing samples for schools in their respective areas. 

Have a story idea or comment for reporter Pat Dooris? Email him at pdooris@kgw.com