Role of school rapid testing debated

Some say more regular surveillance is needed

IT WAS THE end of March when the state’s Department of Public Health began reporting more than 1,000 new cases of coronavirus daily. Schools were shuttered, students were home, and infrastructure to gauge and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 did not exist. The phrases “rapid testing” and “contact tracing” were unknown by the American public. Flash forward seven months, and there are systems that exist to soften the blow as cases rise to over 1,000 for the fifth day in a row.

But tools like rapid testing must be ready to be implemented swiftly, with cohesion, statewide. Since August, the Baker administration has said it has a rapid testing program planned for school outbreaks, modeled after a program the National Guard conducted at nursing homes this spring.

The idea is that the tests would be made available to any school that meets specific criteria, like having two or more students in the same classroom test positive within two weeks, or if more than 3 percent of a school’s student population develops COVID-19 in 14 days and there’s evidence of transmission at the school.

The 70 percent of public school districts that have reopened completely in-person or with a hybrid model do not appear to be “superspreaders,” or places where one infected person has infected many. Gov. Charlie Baker has held up parochial schools as an example of thousands of students returning safely to the classroom.

But the number of positive cases began to climb significantly last week. Massachusetts is expecting about 2 million rapid tests for use in public school districts from the federal government’s agreement with Abbott BinaxNOW. The nasal swab test has a turnaround time of 15 minutes. The tests will be used for symptomatic students and staff. 

The initial rollout is intended for districts providing hybrid or full in-person services and schools with onsite community health centers that can support the administration of the tests. Districts interested in the testing must fill out a survey by October 30. 

Two million tests may not go that far. In 2019, there were over 950,600 students enrolled in public K-12 schools. Another 87,000 either attend private and parochial schools, or are homeschooled. These numbers do not include teachers, bus drivers, or operations staff, which surely number in the many thousands. 

Some educators are saying targeted testing of symptomatic students and staff is fine, but it falls short of what will likely be necessary as the number of red zone municipalities continues to grow.

“I have one big ask today — I actually characterize it as a beg,” said Anne McKenzie, the superintendent of the 500-student Hadley School District, during a legislative hearing this week. “I would like to see a statewide surveillance testing program for K-12 schools. A comprehensive statewide surveillance testing program could offer the ability to identify infected individuals before an outbreak occurs.” 

Committee Co-Chair Rep. Alice Hanlon Peisch called McKenzie’s proposal an “important topic we need to delve into.”

Peisch had also heard of rapid-saliva based tests that have received or are pending FDA approval, projected to cost $5 or less. “I think this has enormous potential of doing exactly what you’re referencing,” she said.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

The cost could be staggering to districts, which is why McKenzie urged legislators and the Baker administration to work with medical experts to find a rapid test that is both cost-effective and reliable. From her own shopping around, she calculated that one type of saliva test, at $20 per unit, would cost her tiny district $340,000 to test staff and students once a week for the rest of the school year. But when she looked at another test costing about $5 the cost dropped to around $80,000. 

How often people get tested would be a function of the transmission rates of the district’s municipalities.

There is no statewide program for surveillance testing, but instead a coalition of a dozen school districts are coordinating weekly testing (and it’s not rapid) using community resources. Some districts, like Chelsea, are utilizing the state’s “Stop the Spread” initiative, which offers free testing to any resident in 18 communities with high numbers of COVID-19.