Baker expands test-and-stay to early childhood centers

Program lets young children exposed to COVID avoid quarantine

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER announced Wednesday that he is expanding the state’s test-and-stay program to early childhood centers, so that children exposed to COVID at daycare do not have to quarantine. 

The announcement came one day after Baker gave schools the flexibility to eliminate test-and-stay in public K-12 schools, in favor of a weekly at-home testing option.  

Baker, at a press conference at Ellis Early Learning in Boston, said his goal with all the testing programs is to give educators “a lot of optionality they didn’t have before,” so schools can choose which model works best for them.  

Baker said expanding testing into early childcare centers will be “a huge part of how you keep centers somewhat predictable, reliable, and dependable – for  kids especially, and also the parents.” 

Childcare providers had long been asking for some version of the program, which, in K-12 schools, allowed students who came into contact with an infected classmate to stay in school and take rapid tests each morning for five school days. The test-and-stay program is an alternative to quarantines, in which an exposed student must stay home.  

Because the program was not available in childcare centers, centers where a child tested positive were forced to send entire classes of children home for multiple days, creating headaches for parents. Under state guidelines, a child exposed to COVID at daycare must stay home for at least five days, and longer if the child is unable to wear a mask – a category that applies to all children under two and some older kids. 

(A small number of childcare centers affiliated with K-12 schools were able to use test-and-stay.) 

The new program, the first of its kind in the country, will let staff and children ages two and up who are in a classroom where a child tested positive take daily rapid tests for five consecutive days and still come to school. The state will also provide rapid tests for childcare centers to test students who develop symptoms in school.  

The state will continue to offer weekly pooled testing, surveillance testing in which a batch of samples are tested together, for children over three and staff. That program is currently being run by the nonprofit Neighborhood Villages, which will also coordinate the test-and-stay program. 

An individual childcare provider can choose whether to participate in any of these testing programs. More than 7,700 providers will be eligible.  

The tests will be given free to providers who sign up, from a supply of 26 million rapid tests recently obtained by the state. Providers can decide whether the tests will be done by families at home or staff at the center. 

When Baker announced Tuesday that he was providing an option to K-12 schools to eliminate test-and-stay and instead obtain weekly rapid tests for families to test at home, he said most asymptomatic close contacts tested negative, and he wanted to give school staff the opportunity to focus on symptomatic cases. Schools also complained about the administrative difficulties of tracking close contacts  with a large numbers of cases. 

One difference with childcare centers is that they may be smaller and classes are more likely to be self-contained, so it is easier to track close contacts. Additionally, children under five are too young to be vaccinated. So guidelines that eliminate the quarantine requirements for vaccinated older students and adults who are exposed to COVID but asymptomatic do not apply to unvaccinated young children.  

Baker said he does not want a “one-size-fits-all model.” 

Early Education and Care Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy said state officials will see how effective the program is and how many centers participate before deciding how long it will last. Baker said the state has enough tests to continue for several months, and the administration will reevaluate around April, depending on circumstances. 

Providers must enroll by January 24 to obtain tests for the week of Januar. 31, the first week tests will be available. They can sign up on a rolling basis after that.  

WilliamEddy, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care, said anything that improves the supply of testing for early education is helpful. “Right now, programs are cutting their own deals, and it’s uneven across the state as to where they’re getting testing,” Eddy said. 

Sharon MacDonald, deputy director at the Guild of St. Agnes in Worcester, said her agency is hearing cries from parents who need childcare to work. One recent day, they had a 15-classroom center with just two classes open because the rest had COVID exposures. Test and stay “does give us options for parents to mitigate the risk,” MacDonald said. 

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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.

But MacDonald and Eddy both said they had not yet gotten any guidance from the state, and logistics will need to be worked out. For example, agencies will have to figure out where to do the testing, how to test, how to obtain parent permission, and how to handle testing for a bus full of kids.  

“Everything about COVID has been bumpy,” Eddy predicted. “This will be no exception.”