Baker urges schools to adopt new testing regime

Would rely on once-a-week at-home testing

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER  is urging Massachusetts schools to adopt a new COVID testing regime that relies on at-home testing once a week.

Currently, the state operates a pooled testing program and a test-and-stay program, where those who have come in close contact with students who test positive are tested for five days to determine whether they have contracted the disease. Baker said the test and stay program has shown transmission rates are extremely low in schools, with 496,440, or 99 percent, of 503,312, tests administered coming back negative.

Now the Baker administration is urging schools to try a different approach that retains a pooled testing program and combines it with at-home testing once a week for students, teachers, and staff.

Jeff Riley, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said the test and stay program was launched when vaccines and at-home tests weren’t widely available. Now that vaccines and at-home tests are available and transmission rates are low, he said, adoption of the new testing regime would free up school nurses to focus more of their time on symptomatic students and less time tracking down close contacts and testing asymptomatic students.

“We need to pivot from strategies that worked in the fall to policies that are more aligned with how things have changed,” Riley said. He called the new testing approach a “game-changer.”

Baker said school districts must opt-in to the new testing program. Riley said the program would operate in conjunction with pooled testing, where samples from a group of students are tested together to determine if COVID is present in the group. He said schools would probably advise parents to have their children take at-home tests two or three days after the pooled test; parents would be required to report to the school and their health care provider if their child tests positive.

Districts who opt-in to the program would receive a kit with two at-home tests every two weeks. The supply of at-home tests would come from the state’s purchase of some 26 million tests due to be delivered over the next several months.

“This is something that is better for our kids and gives them more coverage,” Riley said.

Tracy O’Connell Novick, a member of the Worcester School Committee, was skeptical. In a series of tweets and in a followup interview, she worried that testing just once a week was too little, given how results with at-home tests often hinge on when the test is taken. She also was alarmed that students will no longer be notified if someone in their class tests positive.

The new testing program is being unveiled amid signs that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is waning. In response to a question, Baker said checks for the presence of COVID in waste water shows the presence of the variant is down 65 to 75 percent compared to a couple weeks ago.

“We are very much on the back side of the Omicron surge in Massachusetts,” he said.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Baker administration officials said New England states, including Connecticut and Vermont, have recently adopted similar programs. They said schools will start opting in to the program this week for staff and start receiving tests next weeks. Schools can start receiving tests for students the week of January 31.

“This new option will give Massachusetts school districts more flexibility and more resources in COVID-19 testing that have the most immediate impact to keep schools open,” a Baker administration press release said.