Boston officials and the teachers union unveiled plans on Thursday to randomly test teachers and other educators on a weekly basis for COVID-19, making the city’s school system one of the first in the state to commit to routine testing.
Under the plan, the district will test up to 5 percent of the members of the Boston Teachers Union on a weekly basis, giving high priority to those working in schools in neighborhoods with high COVID-19 positivity rates as well as employees who work directly with students where social distancing is not possible, such as those providing hands-on support for some students with profound disabilities.
The move — part of a broader agreement with the Boston Teachers Union on reopening schools that was announced Thursday — comes as the city has been grappling with wide variations in coronavirus cases among its neighborhoods. Of particular concern is East Boston, which has the highest weekly positivity rate, 8.7 percent.
If East Boston were its own school system, state guidelines would strongly recommend keeping classrooms closed because its positivity rate is so high. However, Boston’s overall weekly positivity rate is 1.7 percent, according to the most recent city data, enabling the district’s classrooms to reopen.
Boston will begin online classes citywide on Sept. 21 and then gradually bring students back into classrooms in waves, starting in October with the highest-need students, including those with profound disabilities and those who do not know English.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced the union agreement as part of his routine briefings on the city’s virus efforts. He highlighted the provision about the routine COVID-19 testing of union employees and other measures in the agreement such as additional training for educators on how to teach remotely and the ability to bring their own children to school if they can’t secure child care.
“The focus of this framework is ensuring the safety of everyone in our schools,” Walsh said.
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, described the testing program as a good first step, but said she would like to see more wide-scale testing of staff. She noted educators report to their schools from across the city and the region while students also criss-cross the city to get to their schools — many relying on public transit — creating ripe conditions for a widespread outbreak.
“If we are focusing efforts on places with highest risk of infection, hopefully it will help prevent or limit spread,” Tang said.
She said she would like the district to administer rapid testing for educators exhibiting symptoms to determine whether they have been infected or are instead suffering from the flu, allergies, or something else. Tang said the move would decrease potentially unnecessary quarantines that would keep teachers away from their students.
Boston appears to be one of just a handful of districts in the state that is planning to test teachers.
Cambridge’s school committee made routine testing for teachers a condition of reopening school buildings for students next month. The city is finalizing plans with the Cambridge-based Broad Institute to offer a testing program for all staff who will work in school buildings, said Lyndsay P. Brown, chief strategy officer for Cambridge Public Schools. The plan will not have to be approved by the school committee, said Brown.
Wellesley and Hanover plan to test staff before they enter schools, according to union agreements with the districts. Wellesley will also provide free testing once a week for staff for “preventative monitoring.” Watertown, Everett, Revere, and Lexington are also planning to offer at least some testing to school staff, according to the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
Debate over whether to routinely test educators has been unfolding over the summer as districts prepare to reopen schools. It intensified after Governor Charlie Baker announced plans to dispatch mobile COVID-19 testing units to schools experiencing potential clusters of cases. Teachers unions criticized the move as too reactive as they pressed for wide-scale free testing of teachers and students as a preventative measure.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, however, has not issued any guidelines on routine testing, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t recommend universal testing for asymptomatic school employees and students.
In its guidance, the CDC said “it is not known if testing in school settings provides any additional reduction in person-to-person transmission of the virus beyond what would be expected with implementation of other infection preventive measures,” such as social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing, and enhanced cleaning procedures.
The guidance also says universal testing could present some challenges, including whether all students, parents, and staff would be receptive to the idea.
But Joshua Barocas, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center and a faculty member at Boston University School of Medicine, said there can be value in doing sample testing if it is part of a broader COVID-19 prevention plan. He compared it to the kind of surveillance and population testing occurring in nursing homes, shelters, and other congregate settings, which aim to test between 20 to 40 percent of people every two or four weeks.
“It can be effective at recognizing an outbreak early,” said Barocas, but it also can lead to the need for further investigation and testing. “I’m hopeful if someone sees a possible signal of an outbreak . . . that they would increase testing to determine if it’s actually a signal or just noise.”
He said going with a sampling of 5 percent of union members each week is a good starting point and from there the district could assess whether it’s large enough to be effective in either spotting potential outbreaks or instilling confidence among educators, students, and parents that they will be safe.
At 5 percent, the testing program is a potentially ambitious effort for the BPS, and could mean testing up to approximately 375 educators a week or 1,500 over the course of a month, according to Globe calculations. The Boston Teachers Union has about 7,500 active members, including nurses, classroom aides, and guidance counselors across 125 buildings.
But not all union members would be eligible for testing. The agreement limits testing to only those who report to school buildings with students inside. Members can only be tested every 14 days. Results would be available within 24 to 48 hours.
The district will provide weekly public reports on incidents of infection by school, according to the agreement.
Many details of the testing program are still being worked out with the Boston Public Health Commission, a school spokesman said Thursday night. The school system also had no estimated cost for the program and did not say where the money would come from to cover the testing.
Thomas Scott, executive director for the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said he has mixed feelings about routine testing, especially the cost and the possibility of false positives for employees with no symptoms.
“Having regular testing probably has some value," he said, but he added, "I don’t know if it will make a difference for districts” in preventing transmissions.
Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, which Boston teachers belong to, said she views the BPS COVID-19 testing as a “win for public health.” But she wishes the state would create a routine testing program for all districts instead of just providing emergency testing.
“Its a shame we have to wait for people to get sick until we do the right thing,” she said.
Felicia Gans and Naomi Martin of the Globe staff contributed to this report.