A safer reopening for California schools

Safely Opening Schools (SOS), a program of the Public Health Institute (PHI), implemented rapid antigen testing for students and staff at a diverse group of California school districts in January to June 2021 to support the safer reopening of schools amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The project was a collaboration between the Public Health Institute, the California Endowment, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Ballmer Group, and the California COVID-19 Testing Taskforce. California Department of Public Health and local health departments supplied testing materials and provided technical guidance for the testing programs. Public school districts provided the staffing and implemented the project, and PHI provided program design, training, technical assistance, and initial  data platform support. The project brought together Californian educators, public health departments, and school health professionals to develop and share best practices for routine rapid COVID-19 testing in schools.

To read the final evaluation report, see the document by Harder+Company to the right.

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Timeline of California school reopening 2021

Image from the Public Health Institute, Safely Opening Schools, Final Evaluation Report 2021

Evaluation results

High level message from the pilot

Data from the pilot program illustrates that student testing played an important role in ensuring confidence for families and education workers about in-person learning. Public Health Institute’s latest press release about the SOS pilot states “90% of parents surveyed said they feel more confident having their child return to in-person instruction because of the rapid COVID testing program at their child’s school”, read more here.  


Ten districts participated in the SOS learning collaborative including completing SOS training, implementing the twice-weekly rapid antigen testing model with staff and students, taking part in an evaluation, and sharing their learnings with other districts. 

  • Week 0: Districts identify their SOS team, attend a kick-off meeting, and complete registration materials.
  • Week 1: Districts begin training, set up data platform with Primary.Health, and reach out to parent community for consent.
  • Week 2: Districts begin testing onsite staff and teachers, refining their testing process and flow. 
  • Week 3: Districts expand testing to include students. 
  • Week 4-8:  District works to ramp up testing so that all onsite students and staff are tested weekly


School Districts who Participated

Compton Unified School District

Fresno Unified School District

La Honda Pescadero School District

McSwain Union Elementary School District

Oakland Unified School District

Planada Elementary School District

Ravenswood City School District

Redwood City School District

Rosemead School District

Weaver Union School District

Four Pillars of Testing in Schools

Test Kits

Testing is proved to reduce the spread of COVID-19 through early identification and isolation of positive cases, including people who are not sick. Rapid antigen tests involve a simple, self-collected nasal swab that provides results within 15 minutes.

Data Platform

The SOS project partnered with Primary.Health for COVID-19 testing used by the SOS pilot and the Sate of California, to record, process, and report rapid COVID-19 antigen test results.

Test Administrators

Approaches to staffing varied across districts depending on their unique circumstances. Some districts utilized classified staff such as school nurses, health technicians, and/or staff hired specifically to support the COVID-19 response. Yet other districts chose to engage outside organizations, such as nursing students or other nurses, afterschool program providers, or other community-based organizations to conduct testing.

Consent and Participation

Obtaining consent from parents for their children to participate in the testing program was another challenge for pilot districts. Approaches included sharing information in a variety of modes – including electronic, paper, and in-person – and in different languages. Some districts also conducted personal outreach, such as phone calls and in-person communication, to help families understand the consent process and the importance of the testing program.



Parents Aptitude on Testing

“…the reopening process was very transparent, lots of email communication from their school and district about our options.”

“You know how the kids are…a few were a little nervous about it. But yeah, after the first, second time, they were fine. They already knew like, ‘Oh. Today, we’re getting our tests.’ So, they were prepared.”

“It’s pretty quick. It’s pretty easy. It’s pretty painless for those of us who consistently [do] it.”

thank you

A special thank you to our supporters who are committed to advancing racial equity in health and education across California.

Unique individuals tested

positive tests

cumulative tests

districts participated

Get In Touch

Contact an SOS team member to learn more about the success of the SOS pilot and how to begin testing at your school.

Email: training@safelyopeningschools.org

School hours: M-F 8am – 5pm

© 2021 Safely Opening Schools. All rights reserved. Site design by Doug Rider Consulting.
Safely Opening Schools is a project of the Public Health Institute, (PHI) PHI has been a leader in public health and development for over 50 years. PHI is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a vision of creating healthy communities where individuals reach their highest potential. Safely Opening Schools is part of PHIs Prevention Policy Group, which works on policy approaches involved in safely opening public schools after Covid-19.