BOSTON (WPRI) — Gov. Charlie Baker announced a new COVID-19 testing initiative he hopes school districts will choose to adopt as an alternative to the state’s test-and-stay program.
“The current state of the pandemic requires that we adapt our efforts to meet the times,” Baker said Tuesday.
Starting next week, the Baker-Polito Administration, through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), will begin distributing millions of at-home rapid tests to schools statewide.
Baker said with this program, students and teachers would be able to take rapid tests home with them and test themselves once a week.
“This will be supported with the 26 million test order that we announced last week, and will be available over the coming weeks and months to make it work on a continuing basis,” Baker said.
Baker said schools will be able to start opting into the at-home testing program for staff this week and will receive tests the week of Jan. 24, while tests will start to be distributed to schools for kids the week of Jan. 31.
The governor also said families will have to notify their schools if they want their children to participate.
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Massachusetts Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said the new at-home testing initiative is “frankly, a game-changer.”
“Providing this option for at-home rapid testing will allow school nurses to spend more time identifying symptomatic individuals, and focus their efforts on other aspects of COVID-19 management in our schools,” Riley said.
“Moreover, by providing at-home testing, for our students, teachers, and staff who participate in the statewide school testing program, we’ll be able to offer more testing every week than under the current test-and-stay program,” he added.
The test-and-stay program was developed as a strategy to keep students who were not vaccinated in school by testing them after they were identified as a close contact. Riley noted the program has been a success, with nearly half a million school days saved “that otherwise would have been lost to quarantine.”
“The data confirms, without a doubt, in-school transmission is extremely rare, far more rare than transmission that is happening outside of school,” Baker said.
The governor said that out of the 503,312 test-and-stay tests performed, 496,440 have come back negative. (In other words, 99% of tests were negative.)
“At this point in the pandemic, we have also heard from many nurses and school administrators urging us to make changes to our test-and-stay program and the contact tracing associated with it. And both our medical advisors and the DPH say it’s time to pivot,” Riley said, noting the test-and-stay program was conceived before every school-aged child had access to vaccines or the at-home rapid antigen tests that the state will now be sending out.
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“We need to pivot from strategies that worked in the fall to policies that are more aligned with how things have changed,” he added.
Schools that choose to participate in the at-home testing program, alongside symptomatic and/or pooled testing, will be able to discontinue contact tracing and the test-and-stay program, according to Baker, in an effort to allow schools to focus time and resources on identifying symptomatic individuals.
Baker said more than 2,000 schools across the state are participating in at least one form of testing that has been made, with most schools opting for pooled testing, which is a form of surveillance testing the state set up for schools to screen for cases on a regular basis last spring.
“The data from over a year’s worth of pooled testing shows that school is an extremely safe place for educators and kids. Positivity rates in pooled tests are significantly below what you might see in the community overall,” Baker said.
While schools that want to keep their current testing programs in place can do so, Riley said the state recommends districts make the switch that will enable them to provide weekly at-home tests.
Riley said the at-home tests, which are packaged in kits of two, are being shipped directly to school districts for distribution. Students and staff who participate will receive one kit every two weeks to test at home.
If a student or staff member tests positive, Riley said they must report their test result to the school and their healthcare provider. Schools will report the results to DESE as part of its weekly COVID-19 reporting already in place.
Riley said the state will not only be asking parents to sign a permission slip consenting to testing, but also to commit notifying the school if their child tests positive.
He also said individual districts are going to advise families of the best time to take the at-home test based on when pooled testing takes place in their district to make the best use of the testing.
Riley said he’s asking for districts to get information back to DESE as soon as possible on whether they’re opting into the program. Those who do, he said, will get first priority.
Baker said while testing is an important tool, he says getting vaccinated is “the best thing you can do.”
The governor said over 915 vaccine and booster clinics have been held across 170 Massachusetts communities, and the DPH will continue to support these clinics operating.
“We will go to any school at any time that wants to run one of these clinics,” Baker said.