BOSTON (SHNS) – Massachusetts schools will be able to participate in a new, weekly pool testing program to screen students and staff for COVID-19 in a way that’s more efficient than individual testing, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Friday as he again made the case for repopulating classrooms during the pandemic.
Pool testing, Baker said, allows for more people to be tested using the same amount of lab resources. He said it will help districts more quickly identify and isolate any cases of the highly contagious coronavirus, giving them the ability to bring more kids back for in-person schooling.
“There’s no doubt the virus will be with us for a while,” Baker said. “While there’s a light at the end of the tunnel associated with the rollout of vaccines, we can’t wait for everybody to be vaccinated before our kids get back to school.”
Baker and his administration’s education officials have regularly been promoting in-person learning and prodding schools to physically reopen their classrooms if they have not yet done so. The governor said Friday that, four months into the school year, “too many kids remain learning remotely or in complicated hybrid programs.”
“Pool testing will provide additional safeguards to stop the spread and give students, parents, teachers and staff confidence that it is safe to be in schools, and this new testing will give school officials more knowledge about what’s happening inside their buildings every day,” Baker said.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sudders said the pool model costs “at least 75 percent less than the cost of an individual test.” It involves multiple test swabs transported to a lab in a single tube, she said, then tested together in one batch.
If a pooled test result is negative, Sudders said, every individual that pool is presumed negative. If it is positive, the individuals will be re-tested using Abbott BinaxNOW rapid tests, and then any positive individuals and their close contacts will be isolated and quarantined.
The pool tests will use short swabs that go into the front portion of the nose, Sudders said.
“We are pleased at this next stage of providing pooled testing to keep or open our schools but we know testing cannot eliminate the risks of infection entirely,” she said. “This is one important tool in the entire toolkit. That’s why it is critical to continue with the mitigation strategies we’ve been using since this spring — wash your hands, wear face coverings, keep your distance.”
Public schools in Massachusetts reported 431 new cases of COVID-19 among students and staff between Dec. 24 and Jan. 6, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Salem, Watertown and Medford have recently launched pool testing with good results, Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said.
Riley said his department will cover the costs of pool testing during the startup phase, estimated at between $15 million and $30 million. They said the program will be available within the next month.
After the start-up period, schools and districts “may continue using pooled testing by purchasing the tests and any other accompanying testing materials and software from a statewide contract using their federal stimulus dollars,” Baker’s office said.
The program will be voluntary and open to all public school districts, charter schools and special education collaboratives, Riley said, with plans to eventually open it up to private schools as well. He said schools offering in-person and hybrid learning will be prioritized for testing kits, but they will also be available to remote-learning schools that are looking to bring back students.
The recent federal stimulus package means there will soon be “sufficient funds at both the state and local level to implement an effective statewide program,” Education Secretary James Peyser said.
Describing schools as “very safe places” when health protocols are followed, Peyser said the pool testing initiative is intended to address “the anxiety that many people feel, teachers and parents alike, about returning to classrooms in the context of the current levels of COVID that we’re experiencing now this winter.”
Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy, whose union has been calling for the state to implement a COVID-19 surveillance testing program in schools, hailed the announcement as a “tremendous victory” but said the testing will not be “a magic solution” and should be accompanied by health and safety measures including adequate ventilation systems and on-site programs for vaccinating educators as soon as possible.
“We will support rapid implementation of this voluntary program in all school districts,” Najimy said. “We are heartened that federal COVID-19 relief funds going to public school districts will be available to continue the testing after state funding runs out.”