Massachusetts will form a rapid-testing mobile unit to respond to schools with suspected clusters of coronavirus cases to prevent outbreaks from exploding undetected, Governor Charlie Baker announced Thursday.
The testing, which will produce results in 15 minutes, will be available by Sept. 1 for schools where multiple students or staffers have tested positive, officials said.
With two weeks to go before schools start reopening for the fall, Baker is urging school districts to return as many students as possible to brick-and-mortar classrooms. Baker said the rapid mobile testing units, together with careful state monitoring of community-level risk and a litany of other safety precautions, should ensure most school districts can do so safely. He said in-person school worked far better for students than remote learning.
“We need to commit to the science — we believe we have — but we also need to commit to the kids,” Baker said.
The announcement was hailed by teachers’ unions, parents, epidemiologists, and school officials, though parents and school officials said it might have come too late to affect districts’ back-to-school plans, and teachers’ unions, which have been pushing for regular and universal testing of public schools, said the rapid response mobile units were not enough to guarantee a safe environment.
“It’s not a comprehensive plan in itself to send in this coronavirus outbreak SWAT team,” said Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts. “The NBA, the White House — they have this rapid testing for everyone. Our students, their families, and our educators deserve it too.”
Baker also announced the state’s “Stop the Spread” initiative, which offers free testing for anyone interested at 20 sites, was extended to Sept. 30. It was previously slated to end in mid-August.
State officials said the mobile rapid-testing units would respond when health authorities suspect transmission has occurred at a school and at least two students or staffers develop COVID-19 within two weeks in a class, cohort, or grade. Baker said they weren’t meant to be a substitute for testing of sick students and staff, who he said should stay home and get tested independently if they experience COVID-19 symptoms.
School districts must consult with public health officials before requesting the rapid testing.
Federal health authorities don’t recommend testing all students and staff, said Marylou Sudders, the state health and human services secretary, adding: “We see this as a response to schools concerned about cluster development.”
Whether the testing initiative will give districts new confidence to offer more in-person learning remains to be seen. Baker said earlier this week that about 70 percent of Massachusetts school districts have decided to offer students at least some in-person instruction, mostly in a hybrid model that also involves remote learning. About 30 percent have opted for a remote-only start — a staggering increase since districts first indicated their plans in July.
Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the new testing effort and risk-level maps on the state’s website would provide some reassurance, but were unlikely to affect districts’ decisions as they negotiate with powerful teachers’ unions.
“There are so many other issues that the unions have identified that this may be satisfying them on some level, but I don’t think its going to satisfy them on all the requirements they’re putting forward,” Scott said. “It feels sometimes like they’re throwing everything but the kitchen sink at this thing.”
The state’s most influential teachers unions have been pushing school districts to start remotely, asking them not to bring teachers and students back until it’s proven safe to do so. In addition to widespread, frequent universal testing of students and staffers, the unions have pushed for state funding and enforcement to ensure school safety inspections and upgrades to school air ventilation systems to reduce the threat of virus particles lingering in the air.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the governor’s new testing initiative came as a result of unions “shining a bright light on all the aspects of what it takes to safely return to in-person learning.”
“We are overly demanding because what is at stake is the lives of our students and their families and our educators,” she added.
Two epidemiologists lauded the state’s effort and agreed that more proactive testing would help reduce risks of in-person schooling, but they acknowledged the financial and logistical challenges.
“There are some options that are coming in the near future that might allow for rapid testing before these clusters occur,” said Nadia Abuelezam, a professor and epidemiologist at Boston College. “But in terms of responding to an existing threat or existing cluster, this is a really smart move.”
Bill Hanage, a professor of infectious diseases at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the unit may have to return within days to retest students who test negative, he said, as the virus’s presence changes over time, leading to false negatives if tested too early or too late.
“It’s a good thing, but the devil will be in how its implemented, and it’s only part of the solution,” Hanage said.
Hanage disagreed with teachers’ unions that universal testing was necessary for all districts at all times, but said it should occur in places where coronavirus cases are rising. To reduce the costs of testing people without symptoms, Hanage said, schools should explore pooled testing, which could involve testing the saliva of a dozen children to see whether any may be infected.
“We have to accept when schools open, there will be cases in schools,” said Hanage, a father of two Cambridge students. “We cannot open schools without there being consequences for transmission of the virus and likewise, we cannot close schools without there being consequences for the education of our children. We have to figure out how to mitigate those risks.”
For some parents hoping to get their children back in schools this year, the announcement came too late. Many school committees have already voted on plans.
Beth Humberd, an Andover mother hoping to get her two sons in elementary school full time assuming her community remains low-risk, said she appreciated the state’s recent color-coded maps guiding communities on reopening schools and the latest announcement about the testing units. But she said they should’ve come two months ago. Her district has already voted for a hybrid model.
“All these things that have come out in the last couple weeks are helpful, welcomed things from the state,” she said, but “within the districts, the planning is so far past the point where any of those things would’ve helped their decision.”