BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — Gov. Charlie Baker has announced a new statewide COVID-19 testing plan for students and teachers, in an effort to return all schools in Massachusetts to in-person learning for the second part of the academic year.
Gov. Baker said Friday the universal coronavirus testing program at will begin at schools that are currently offering in-person learning options.
However, Gov. Baker said there will eventually be weekly coronavirus "pool testing" available at all schools in the state within the next month, including private and charter schools.
"There's now an overwhelming body of scientific research that shows that in-person learning can be done without spreading the virus, regardless of the community transmission rates," Baker said.
State education officials worked with the Department of Public Health to start a rapid-response mobile testing program at more than 100 school districts last December. While many districts have been able to bring students back into the classroom since last August, Baker said there are still many students learning remotely or on complicated hybrid programs.
"The data around this is clear; that in-person learning is essential to kids' education, developmental and emotional wellbeing, and we've shown we can control the spread of the virus in classrooms, when the right steps are in place," Baker said. "This new pool testing resource that we're going to be providing going forward will give districts the ability to bring more kids back to the classroom."
Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said according to a Rockefeller Foundation report released in December, there has not been a community outbreak traced to an elementary school, and contract tracing studies have found that children are almost never the source of infection clusters.
"That said, we know there are concerns, and there are high-risk students and families, and we want every tool to detect and prevent the spread," Sudders said. "We have a powerful new tool in our toolkit that didn't exist in the Spring, and was a concept at best in Summer; Pool Testing."
In order to run pool tests, Sudders said school staff will be supplied with weekly testing kits. Inside the kits will be short swabs that only go in the front part of the nose, and are meant to be "completely painless."
The group of swabs are then collected into a single tube to be transported to a lab for a single test. The results of each pool test are then reported securely back to each school within 24 to 48 hours after they arrive at the lab.
"If a pooled test result is negative, then all individuals within that pool are presumed negative and they remain in school," Sudders said. "If a pool test is positive, then all the individuals in that pool are retested using the Abbott's BinaxNow test, and the positive individual and any close contacts are isolated and quarantined. This allows classrooms to stay open."
Sudders said pool testing will allow a low-cost testing option for an increased number of individuals using the same amount of lab resources, to more quickly identify potential outbreaks.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, 431 of the state's students and staff tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week, despite being on winter break.
Massachusetts Teachers' Association President Merrie Najimy called the pool testing program a "tremendous victory for educators and families across the state."
"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."
Written by Brit Smith
(Photo: Getty Images)