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Novel pool testing for coronavirus seen as potential K-12 model

Daniel Heo, center, waits in line to check in for COVID-19 testing in Gantcher Center before moving in at Tufts University in August.
Daniel Heo, center, waits in line to check in for COVID-19 testing in Gantcher Center before moving in at Tufts University in August.Alonso Nichols/Tufts University

While city and school leaders in Medford and Somerville were weighing how to bring students back into classrooms, they kept running into a glaring obstacle: how could the two densely populated communities ensure they were screening school populations for a highly infectious virus?

A partnership with Tufts University offers a potentially precedent-setting solution.

The two districts will conduct regular testing of thousands of students learning in-person as well as teachers and other staff using a new technique Tufts developed, pooling samples together to monitor everyone in a school for COVID-19 at about a third of the cost of the standard individual tests.

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The new system, already deployed for Medford educational staff ahead of full implementation in January, enabled both cities to accelerate their plans to shift from fully remote educational models to hybrid options even while case numbers are on the rise locally and nationally.

“With the plan now in place to regularly and repeatedly test students and staff and the financial support that Tufts is providing, we can catch potential COVID-19 cases in the schools early, which will allow us to take swift action to reduce the virus’s spread,” Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone said at a press conference. “This comes just in time.”

Tufts launched a pilot program in mid-September to study a pooled testing system, and after finding significant success, university officials decided to partner with two of their host communities.

Under the new process, teachers will typically be tested twice a week and students will typically be tested once per week. Eight samples will be bundled together and screened by the Broad Institute at once rather than individually. If any group comes back positive, every student or staff member included in the pool will be re-tested individually.

Combining samples can significantly reduce the amount of tests needed to screen everyone in a school building, even if several groups test positive and then require follow-up monitoring.

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“Even with the re-testing required after a pool test is positive, the program is less expensive than large-scale individual testing because it requires only a fraction of the analysis,” said Tufts University President Anthony Monaco. The technique “holds great promise and could eventually be adopted by other school districts,” he said

While some details are not yet finalized, officials hope to launch the wide-scale pooled testing program in Somerville and Medford in January with some testing starting in December.

“We’re offering 50 percent of the testing costs, Tufts is covering it,” Monaco said. “In addition, we’re providing all of the logistics and much of the back-end IT system for the accounts and how all that can work. We’re also building that so it can scale to other districts that might want to use it. There’s a lot of logistics in getting this to work, a lot of staff and medical professional time, and we’ll be each contributing to that, but that’s the way we’ve set it up for the moment.”

A Tufts spokesperson later clarified that the university would cover half of the costs of testing through December, then logistical and back-end help plus other support still to be determined once the pooled testing program formally launches in January.

Somerville schools are still operating virtually and intend to phase in some in-person classes starting in early December. Medford has started its process of reopening in a hybrid model, and Tufts has already helped test 1,200 Medford Public Schools employees.

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About 1,500 individuals in Somerville schools will need regular tests once reopening starts next month, officials said, while Medford officials expect around 3,900 students and staff to get testing once the program fully launches.

“Increased access to testing for both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals is essential in helping us understand and control the spread of this disease,” said Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn. “With the addition of this novel pool testing program, we would have greater ability to monitor potential cases in our schools and classrooms.”

Mary Skipper, superintendent of Somerville Public Schools, said deciding how to test students and staff regularly was “one of the last and most complex pieces of the puzzle to solve” as district leaders weighed reopening.

Many officials have argued offering in-person learning wherever possible is crucial to avoid the significant mental and emotional health challenges that students experience when they are learning remotely. Vulnerable student groups such as those requiring special education and English language learners are even more likely to suffer negative consequences when they are physically cut off from their teachers and fellow students.

“No matter how robust and high-quality remote learning is, it can’t replace the experience for our students of attending in-person with their teacher and their classmates,” Skipper said.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration has pointedly focused on in-person learning in recent weeks, urging districts not to overreact to increasing case numbers and in some cases threatening to audit districts that remain remote.

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Unlike most colleges and universities, which have significant protocols in place to test students on campus regularly, K-12 schools in Massachusetts do not have a reliable or consistent testing infrastructure.

The pool testing system could serve as a model to be emulated, officials said Thursday. Curtatone warned, however, that the partnership also underlines disparities between districts.

“This is really no cause for celebration,” Curtatone said. “This is just a plan for two communities, but our entire region and commonwealth really shares this need. In a sense, Medford and Somerville won the lottery by having a leading university and a leader like President Monaco and our own dedicated and skilled staff working tirelessly to get us the basic tools needed to slow the spread. But it really shouldn’t be that way.”

“We shouldn’t walk away today saying, ‘isn’t this great that Somerville and Medford found a way?’” he continued. “We should be asking, ‘why isn’t there a broader state or federal plan to do this for all schools, especially in higher-risk communities?’”