Local collaborative putting together school COVID-19 testing ‘blueprint’ to get more kids back in the classroom

BOSTON — As the push continues to get more kids back in school, even as COVID-19 cases climb in the state, a growing number of local communities see testing as the key.

The Collaborative isn’t waiting for the state to hand out tests, they’re charting ways to do it on their own. They hope in the next few weeks, many more districts will be able to follow their path.

Six Massachusetts communities make up the Collaborative: Brookline, Chelsea, Revere, Somerville, Watertown and Wellesley.

At least a dozen more are eagerly following their progress, which has been especially effective in Wellesley. 80% of families in the metro-west town participate in weekly surveillance testing. Staff and middle and high school students take Covid saliva tests at home, and bring them to school. There, tests are collected and shipped to a lab, with group results back overnight.

Wellesley School Superintendent Dr. David Lussier says the pilot program is working.

“If they detect any positive strains in any of the pools, the lab then converts to individual diagnostic testing. So they can actually pinpoint who exactly is positive at that point,” said Lussier.

In November, this surveillance testing caught an outbreak amongst asymptomatic staff. Wellesley High School took classes fully remote for 2 weeks, while other Wellesley schools stayed open in their current hybrid model Lussier believes the testing and the quick move to remote prevented further spread.

“That’s one of the missions of the collaborative, to try to replace the fear and anxiety and uncertainty that comes during this time with actual data that will empower many individuals to act in a principled way,” Collaborative Chair Jesse Boehm told Boston 25 News.

The Collaborative is comprised of local scientists, teachers, parents, and school leaders, all working together to make testing available in public schools. Boehm is a cancer biologist and Wellesley dad.

He says catching the Wellesley outbreak was proof the testing works.

“People are really feeling confident that it provides them a level of assurance that there are just as few cases in our schools as possible,” said Boehm.

But surveillance testing is not easy, or inexpensive.

“Each week, we have to assemble thousands of these test kits,” said Lussier. “Initially, we started with parent volunteers. And then that has morphed into our bus and van drivers on Wednesdays coming in, and actually helping to assemble those kits.”

In Wellesley, fundraising by the local education foundation covers the cost: an estimated $25-30,000 each week.

“We don’t have the financial support that we need to make a testing program happen the way that it has in some of our more affluent neighboring communities,” said Revere School Superintendent Dr. Dianne Kelly.

Revere has been categorized as a “red” community for high Covid transmission since the summer and is schools there are still fully remote. Kelly says she believes this kind of testing is a path back to the classroom.

“We look at testing as really the only way that we can ensure families, and students and staff that our environments are safe,” Kelly said. Revere is currently working with a private partner on potential financing for testing.

As communities like Revere deal with funding roadblocks, members of the collaborative are looking for more help.

It’s really going to take a state initiative in order for urban communities the gateway cities, places where we are highest positivity rates to be able to stand up any kind of testing program,” Kelly said. “It’s just not something that we can afford to do on our own.”

“And this is where I think the state can play a leading role in making sure that zip code doesn’t determine which districts have access to this sort of important testing,” said Lussier.

The Collaborative is putting together a blueprint on testing, compiling what it has learned collectively so far. The plan is to submit that to the state by the end of December, and hopefully get more communities the money they need to roll-out testing in 2021.

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