Delays hinder state’s pooled testing program for schools

Staffing challenges at CIC Health cited 

WHEN THE AMHERST-PELHAM regional school district instituted a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, the school committee gave staff an alternative: they could get tested regularly instead. 

But the district was counting on using the state’s pooled testing program – which so far, has not materialized in Amherst.  

Amherst-Pelham Superintendent Michael Morris said he developed a partnership with the University of Massachusetts to test unvaccinated staff members, but he had to scramble to get the program set up. And that testing program does not help students and vaccinated staff, who simply want the added layer of protection that weekly surveillance testing provides. 

Although school started August 30, the pooled testing program promised by the state, which the Amherst district signed up for August 16, is still not up and running. “It’s a cause of a lot of stress and consternation for folks who want to participate in our community,” Morris said. 

When Gov. Charlie Baker and state education officials announced that all schools had to return in person this year, one factor intended to make that easier and safer was the availability of pooled testing. The state-run program offers all school districts that request it access to weekly COVID-19 testing for students and staff. In pooled testing, several samples are tested at one time, which makes the tests cheaper to administer. The goal is to detect cases quickly so infected people can be isolated before the virus spreads.  

But a month into the school year, delays, apparently related to staffing, have prevented the state from rolling out the testing program in many schools.  

Neema Avashia, an ethnic studies teacher at BCLA/McCormack Middle School in Boston, has been tweeting about it all week. “Day 13 of school, still no sign of pool testing,” she wrote. “Day 14 of school, no pool testing again. Supposedly they are coming tomorrow…. Day 15, and the pool testing people cancelled their scheduled visit to our school…. Day 16 of school, no pool testing to be seen. ‘Sometime next week,’ we’ve been told.” 

In an interview, Avashia said not having pooled testing means the state is “leaving out a significant layer of the kinds of mitigation that we need in order to manage spread in schools.” She said there is also a transparency issue, since the state is reporting on the number of cases in schools. “If you’re not testing, what you’re reporting isn’t accurate,” she said. 

Avashia expressed frustration that the state took remote learning off the table with the promise that it will keep schools safe, partly through pooled testing. “If you’re not doing those things, you’ve taken away options from families and you’re not doing your part, fulfilling your end of the bargain, which is doing the work needed to keep schools safe,” she said. 

The state offers schools access to three types of testing: rapid testing for symptomatic individuals; rapid tests for students who have been exposed to someone with COVID but want to stay in school; and routine pooled testing. According to state education officials, more than 2,200 schools are participating in some kind of testing – double the amount that participated last year. 

According to the Executive Office of Education, as of Monday, 99 percent of schools had gotten their BinaxNOW rapid test kits, which are used for symptomatic or exposed individuals. But the state would not provide numbers on how many schools are still waiting for pooled testing.  

State figures released as part of the state’s weekly update on COVID in schools indicate that there were 26,400 pool tests processed last week from 82 of the state’s 400 school districts. 

State officials say 1,030 schools have run at least one kind of test. Among those that have not yet run a test, some schools might be delaying implementation or are awaiting additional personnel support. If schools are only running tests for people who are sick or have been exposed to COVID, they may not have needed to test yet.  

Pooled testing is provided by CIC Health, a private organization which has a state contract to provide the testing. A CIC Health spokesperson referred questions to state officials. State education officials said securing staffing for some schools has been a problem, and CIC Health is working to address the issue. As districts continue to sign up, testing is being implemented on a rolling basis. 

In a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker, state Rep. Mindy Domb, an Amherst Democrat, raised concerns about the delays in pooled testing. Domb said she has heard from schools in her district that applied by August but “have not yet received the service and have been given no expectation of when it will arrive.” 

“Clearly, the inconsistent rollout of the pooled testing program could be jeopardizing the health of our school communities,” including students too young to be vaccinated, Domb wrote. 

Domb said one explanation she received was staffing shortages at CIC Health – and she said superintendents have been asked to begin exploring the possibility of hiring local people to perform the service CIC Health was supposed to provide. “This is not acceptable,” she wrote.  

Domb suggested that Baker activate the National Guard to do pool testing if needed – just as he recently activated the National Guard to help alleviate a shortage of school bus drivers. 

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

“Testing has been promoted to our districts as essential to maintain safe in-person learning,” Domb said in a statement. “It’s confusing why the Administration is not acting with more urgency to ensure that this service is present.”