Fast and frequent COVID testing is critical to reopening schools unions say, but cost and availability have made that unfeasible

Fast and frequent COVID testing is critical to reopening schools unions say, but cost and availability have made that unfeasible

BOSTON — When Governor Charlie Baker announced last week that under the state’s testing program for schools mobile units would be deployed whenever there’s a suspected COVID-19 cluster, the teachers union quickly criticized the plan, calling it “reactive.”

The Massachusetts Teachers’ Union (MTA) president Merri Najimy said the plan won’t do prevent outbreaks and doesn’t do enough to protect students and school staff before becoming infected. The group has been pushing for regular rapid testing to keep the virus out of schools.

“It’s too little after the fact that there’s a potential contamination. We’re talking about being proactive. This is being reactive,” said Najimy.

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“Testing is one of the multiple measures that have to be in place before we know it’s safe to return to the buildings and the longer it takes the state to resolve all of the issues the longer it takes for us to get back to in person learning,” added the MTA president.

But broad screening programs like the union is proposing are costly and, therefore, out of reach for many public schools districts. Current rapid testing capacity and availability also complicate their demand.

“Some of the issues that were being raised by the union just don’t even make any sense,” Baker said during last week’s announcement. " I respect and understand the importance of making sure that this be done safely. But I would also ask people to respect the science, which at this point, is developing a fairly decent body of evidence with respect to what works and what doesn’t when it comes to teaching in person.”

Under the state’s plan, a rapid testing response team would be activated if a cluster surfaced. Mobile units would respond when multiple students or staffers within the same school are symptomatic. Rapid test results would be available within hours, so students don’t have to miss school while waiting to find out if they are positive.

Current CDC guidance does not recommend testing for students and staff who are not symptomatic.

Still, students will be returning to school in just a few weeks and school administrators are coming up with ways to safely reopen in a pandemic.

In Hopkinton, school officials are busy preparing for an academic year that will begin despite no regular testing for students and staff.

The district is instituting extra measures to ensure a safe reopening.  The schools superintendent, Carol Cavanaugh asked school families and staff to begin practicing a “soft quarantine” ahead of the first day of classes in an effort to reduce the potential of introducing the virus into school buildings.

“So that doesn’t mean that a family shouldn’t go to the grocery store. But it does mean that a family shouldn’t be exposing themselves to places where there are lots of people gathering, lots of people gathering without masks, lots of people gathering indoors, maybe traveling to some of those states where you know, we know the virus is far more heightened than it is here in Hopkinton,” Cavanaugh told 25 Investigates.

Doctor Tina Hermos, a mother of three children in public school and a pediatric infectious diseases expert at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, would also like to see wide scale screening in schools but says that’s simply not within reach right now.

“I think in the right circumstances where the community rates are very low and guidelines have been well studied and laid out for that, that even without the screening, we can still have some safe classrooms across the Commonwealth,” said Hermos. “I don’t believe that we have to have those that type of testing in place because it’s so far off.”

Widespread testing or not, she says strong contact tracing in schools is critical.

“There’s going to be a case in the school and in everyone’s going to interpret it differently if we don’t have the appropriate contact tracing,” said Hermos, adding that they next key step for schools should be making fast free testing available to symptomatic students so they aren’t sidelined for days waiting for results.

Meanwhile, the teachers union does not believe their demand for frequent and fast testing is that far-fetched.  They point to the testing programs that are currently underway in colleges and university and which rely on  regular testing of students and staff to prevent outbreaks.

“We all know [testing] is expensive, but our kids are worth it and our Commonwealth is worth it,” said Najimy.

25 Investigates asked the state if there were any plans for wide scale testing in schools.  A spokesperson for the COVID Command Center said that “In line with CDC guidance, the Commonwealth is not recommending testing of students or teachers before returning to classrooms.”

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