Dear Parents/Guardians and Students,
In December, I attended a webinar on a pilot project regarding the use of “pooled testing” as a mitigation strategy for prevention of COVID-19 in three districts: Cambridge, Medford, and Watertown. Pooled testing uses a self administered lower nasal swab for regular weekly testing of individuals with consent. The swabs are processed in small batches or “pools” of 5 to 10 indiviudal specimens. If negative, then all individuals are determined to have not been exposed to COVID-19 and continue with school attendance in the hybrid model. If the pooled testing is positive, the 5-10 individuals in that “pool” need to have a follow up test to determine which specific individuals are positive for COVID-19. The members of that pool will have an individual follow up Abbott BinaxNow rapid results test at school. After 15 minutes the results will be ready to identify the positive individuals who will be referred to their health care provider, must quarantine for 10 days, and school based contact tracing will be conducted. Individuals with negative results to the rapid results follow up test may return to school in the hybrid model as long as they remain asymptomatic.
By using the pooled testing methodology for infectious diseases the cost of implementing a school wide testing program is reduced making it a much more cost effective option. Wait times for test results is substantially shorter, which decreases the potential for asymptomatic positive COVID-19 contact and community spread of the disease. Research shows that schools have not been large vectors of community spread of COVID-19, mainly because of the consistent implementation of other mitigations strategies for mask culture, physical distancing, and limiting capacities in classrooms through the hybrid model. Public Health data is always made available in a historical perspective of the previous 14 days. In many cases, the schools are responding to data outside of school control. The use of a school based testing strategy provides the administration with real time data and the ability for immediate response. This will limit the number of students and staff members who will need to be out of school in remote learning and the need for a whole school or the district to close. The continuity of learning that our students need for socialization and to support mental health is enhanced by adding pooled testing to our existing mitigation procedures.
On January 12th, Commissioner Jeff Riley of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced an opportunity for districts to develop and implement a pooled testing program at no cost to the district for tests kits, software, and laboratory processing of the samples. In addition, districts would receive technical assistance and training in how to conduct the program safely for participating students and staff members. This free period will begin for our district on February 23rd and will continue to March 28th, 2021. If the district determines that the pooled testing program was successful in maintaining a safe school environment and keeping more students in school without interruptions due to COVID-19, we can continue to offer the program beyond March 28th at low cost state contract pricing and use the allocation from the State Coronavirus Relief Fund to support the program. On January 15th the district submitted the survey indicating our interest and on January 28th we submitted the documentation to become a participating district in pooled testing. On Monday, February 1st, North Adams Public Schools was notified that they have been partnered with CIC Health, a partner institution with the Broad Institute and research affiliate to Harvard University and MIT. CIC Health has extensive experience in COVID-19 testing throughout New England and members of the North Adams Public Schools administration and staff have already begun to participate in their training.
Next Tuesday, February 9, 2021, the North Adams Public Schools will host a webinar for Parents and Guardians on the pooled testing program and answer questions. In the coming days another informational letter will be sent to you with instructions on how to provide consent for your child or children to participate in the pooled testing program. It is my sincerest hope that you will see the value in having your child participate in the program as another active step in keeping our students and the adults who work with them safe from COVID-19.
Dr. Barbara Malkas