Reading, MA — In a January 14th School Committee meeting, Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Doherty informed the committee that Reading Public Schools had recently expressed interest in joining a Massachusetts Department of Secondary and Elementary Education (DESE) funded six-week program of COVID-19 pooled testing.
The Baker-Polito Administration announced on January 8th that the state would sponsor six weeks of pooled COVID-19 testing in interested school districts.
“Through collaboration with the COVID-19 Response Command Center and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), participating school districts providing in-person or hybrid learning will be prioritized for testing kits. Schools in remote learning, looking to bring students back to classrooms, can also participate in the pooled testing program. Interested districts and schools have until January 15 to notify DESE of their participation in the program,” read the press statement announcing the program.
Pooled testing involves taking a sample of 10 to 25 students and/or staff and having them take a PCR test that works to detect the virus’s genetic material. The tests’ results are then pooled together, giving the overall batch either a positive or negative rating.
Samples are then sent to a lab, where one of two things can happen. If the batch comes back with a negative result, then all the students and staff in the sample are presumed to be negative. If the batch comes back positive, then everyone in the pool will be administered an individual diagnostic test (the Abbot BinaxNOW test) in order to find the student or staff member who has COVID-19. In the rare case that all the samples in the pool come back with a negative test result during this stage, pool members will be asked to take an individual PCR test.
“The thought is that by doing the PCR first, the BinaxNOW second, it will increase the accuracy of the rapid test” explained Doherty in the January 14th School Committee meeting.
PCR tests, administered via nasal swab, would be performed once a week, and results would be received within 24 to 48 hours. The idea behind pooling the results is that it allows many individuals to be tested for the same amount of laboratory resources as a single PCR test.
“Samples can be administered by any trained staff, it doesn’t have to be a nurse, and it is not the invasive swab that originally was part of the first testing process. It’s what’s called the short swab, so it just gently goes into the nostril. And I believe it’s four times around and then in the nostril, and then it’s put into the batch. Students in certain age groups can do their own samples under supervision. Others it would be done by a trained school staff member,” explained Doherty.
This is the first time that Reading will opt to be part of a state-funded testing program in its public schools, after declining to be part of an earlier program offered by DESE in November. As opposed to the earlier program, pooled testing will focus on testing people who are currently asymptomatic instead of those who are already exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. The earlier program also asked for districts to take on most of the cost of testing, whereas this new program will be state-funded for the first six weeks using federal stimulus funds. If districts are interested in pursuing pooled-testing after these six weeks, they will have to fund it using their own federal stimulus money.
Doherty sees the initial six-week period as offering the district a trial run in this kind of testing.
“That six weeks will give us an opportunity to see how it’s done, and to see if we have the capacity to do it ourselves because there is obviously going to be a strain on our nurses, IT, as well as facilities in getting rid of the medical waste that goes along with it,” said Doherty.
Doherty was quick to point out that the new testing program is merely a mitigation strategy, and would not help bring students back to in-person learning any quicker.
“This is to help identify students and staff as early in the infection process as possible,” said Doherty.
Doherty stated that while student participation in testing across the board cannot be mandatory, students who are participating in after school extracurricular and athletics activities, including athletics, may be mandated to participate in pool testing because those activities are “above and beyond the school day.” Making testing mandatory for staff would be subject to bargaining with their unions.
Reading Public Schools expressed interest in taking part in the program via a DESE questionnaire. While they are currently waiting to hear back from the department regarding next steps, Doherty stated that the district has already assembled its team to oversee the rollout of pooled testing in RPS