MA students return to school to new COVID testing programs

BOSTON — As students across Massachusetts return to school this fall, they are likely to have a new COVID-19 testing program in place. The state is offering districts several testing options through a contract with testing provider CIC Health.

Rockport Public Schools Superintendent Rob Liebow didn’t hesitate to sign his district up after a positive experience working with the health tech company last spring.

“It’s what will keep us open and not have to be in a hybrid [model] or be in remote learning like occurred last year,” Leibow said. “This has been a game-changer. I can’t think of anything more important than what pool testing has done or can do for school districts around the state.”

Routine pooled testing is one available option through the federally-funded testing program. It allows students and staff to submit shallow nasal samples or saliva samples to be grouped together and sent for testing. If a group tests positive, individual follow-up testing occurs, either at the school or the lab.

In Rockport, nurses bring a cart to each classroom. There, children – as young as in kindergarten – receive swabs they use to take their own samples. A teacher then drops the samples in a tube before the nurse collects them and heads to the next classroom, Liebow explained.

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Rockport has sent parents consent forms to allow their children to opt-in to the testing program. Staff are required to partake in the testing.

But perhaps the most beneficial part of the program, Liebow told Boston 25 News by Zoom Tuesday, is the “Test and Stay” option, designed to dramatically reduce the number of people in quarantine.

If a student or staff member tests positive, that person must stay home. But, in the past, close contacts, too, had to stay home for seven-to-10 days. Through “Test and Stay,” close contacts can take a rapid test at school every day for at least five days, and, if negative, stay in school.

“Last spring, a lot of kids were out of school because of scares, but they didn’t really have COVID,” said CIC Health CEO Tim Rowe. “This time, we have a way to keep them in school.”

Avoiding unnecessary quarantine will eliminate disruption to students’ learning, Liebow said. Last school year, Rockport had to hire proctors to sit in the classroom in place of teachers who were in quarantine and providing lessons at home by Zoom.

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“Lack of the quarantine requirement through ‘Test and Stay’ is going to be a real big key,” Liebow said. “The richness of the experience in schools…there’s tremendous value in that.”

When students who were close contacts were unexpectedly sent home, child care often became an issue, forcing parents to stay home, Rowe said.

“There were so many things that were happening last spring that were unavoidable as we were all learning about this,” Rowe said. “There’s no reason why that has to happen again this fall. We have the technology. We know how to make this safe. We can keep in school, let them have those social interactions that they need to grow and also free us parents to be able to get back to our lives.”

Of 600 schools his company provided testing for last spring, Rowe said there were no outbreaks and no school closings due to COVID-19.

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