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OPINION

Pooled COVID-19 testing can help keep kids in school

The goal is to allow schools to remain in operation, which will benefit the social, emotional, and academic development of children as well as create conditions to fully activate the workforce.

Teams of scientists at the Broad Institute performing tests to detect COVID-19.
Teams of scientists at the Broad Institute performing tests to detect COVID-19.Scott Sassone/Broad Institute

Massachusetts finds itself in a second COVID-19 spike. New daily case numbers have ticked above 2,000 for the first time in six months. Coronavirus-related hospitalizations have risen 46 percent since Sept. 23. The mask mandate and limitations on gathering sizes ordered by Governor Baker could soon be followed by rolling back the state’s reopening phases. We are in the early days of what we have been warned will be a long winter of trying to keep this virus in check, plunging us into a renewed and painful discussion about which businesses and job activities are truly essential and how we keep workers and patrons safe.

Notably, the list of essential activities identified in the spring neglected to include one critical area that should be added to the list: schools.

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While Somerville is already in the process of reopening schools, we know that access to testing is a critical component for understanding how and when COVID-19 could spread within a school environment and the community as a whole. Quality testing is among the top priorities for communities throughout the state, and it will take an innovative approach to make it happen.

That’s why we’ve partnered with Tufts University and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard on a pooled testing program. It costs one-third the amount of individual testing and has been proved as an effective means of testing large groups of people where positive test results are expected to be low. Teachers will be tested twice a week and students will be tested once a week. Eight samples will be bundled together and tested by the Broad. If a positive result comes back from a given group, we will then go back and retest all eight subjects from that group. It allows much broader and more regular testing of our students, teachers, and school staff.

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Pooled testing is not new; it is a strategy that has been effective since well before COVID-19 became a reality. It will allow us to conduct universal, free, weekly testing of everyone in our schools as opposed to random sampling, allowing us to catch potential outbreaks before they spiral out of control. What is novel about our approach is using it for students, teachers, and staff in our K-12 schools to help make sure we can provide the necessary in-person education and resources for students and families. On top of testing protocols, we will add robust contact tracing so we can identify those who have had exposure to the disease, creating a full and well-rounded approach to mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

The goal is to allow schools to remain in operation even as other elements of society face potential closures. It will benefit the social, emotional, and academic development of children as well as create conditions to fully activate the workforce, particularly working mothers.

This is a scalable system that can be extended to the state. Securing schools was something communities could not have had in place when this pandemic first hit in March, but we can make a smart investment in it now. This model is designed for persistent large-scale testing, providing essential insights about COVID-19 so schools don’t become vectors for larger community spread. We will test every student and staff member every week.

Regular surveillance testing is a critical element to making sure people aren’t unknowingly walking COVID-19 into schools, or into homes from our schools. According to the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, “While schools provide many important benefits, they also are at risk for outbreaks. Recent studies have found that infected children are able to transmit SARS-CoV-2 to other children and adults.” If community spread spikes out of control, then we may have to close schools or delay reopenings, but this is how we give ourselves the best possible chance of getting kids back in school and keeping them open.

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Local and state leaders must play an active role in securing what we deem to be essential functions. The governor is correct that all of our communities should be working toward in-person schooling. Yet state leadership must put substantial financial support on the table. The good news is that the incoming Biden administration says it wants to fund educational resiliency during the coronavirus pandemic. So the opportunity is ripe to make an investment in universal testing. Every district should have a testing system as comprehensive and ubiquitous as what we’re launching in Somerville. Adopting a similar program at a statewide level presents an opportunity for Massachusetts to prioritize our school-aged children, their families, and every person who works in those schools with a robust and affordable testing system.

Joseph Curtatone is the mayor of Somerville.