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Testing key to reopening public schools

As COVID-19 numbers rise, so does the need to serve public school children across the Commonwealth.

Seven-year-old Hector Mena received a COVID-19 test in Lawrence, in October. Widespread COVID-19 testing is one possible strategy for getting more students back into school.
Seven-year-old Hector Mena received a COVID-19 test in Lawrence, in October. Widespread COVID-19 testing is one possible strategy for getting more students back into school.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

In the blunt words of the nation’s chief infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, “Close the bars and keep the schools open.”

Well, the bars in Massachusetts are still closed, a sensible measure to limit transmission of the coronavirus (even though casino gambling and indoor dining persist). But hundreds of schools also remain closed, which means hundreds of thousands of youngsters are learning remotely. That in turn impacts the work lives of their parents.

Fauci’s point, of course, was that indefinite remote learning isn’t healthy, especially for young children, for children with special needs, and for their pandemic-exhausted parents. Policy makers need to weigh the health risks of reopening schools — which appear to be less than once feared — against the mounting social costs of keeping them shut. Meanwhile, parents are growing increasingly restless — and vocal, like the group that demonstrated on Boston City Hall Plaza this week.

“I know that there are parents all across the city . . . saying, ‘Reopen schools.’ I support you,” Mayor Marty Walsh told a news conference ahead of that demonstration. “But right now, today . . . we are not prepared for that.”


Other parents have simply opted out of public school systems — statewide public school enrollments fell 4 percent this fall — a trend that will exacerbate already deep racial and economic learning gaps among students.

Even if it means keeping bars and other businesses shut longer, Walsh and municipal leaders across Massachusetts need to press harder to reopen public schools. One possible strategy to get more students back into school would be widespread COVID-19 testing on the order of that undertaken so successfully by colleges and universities in the region. Higher education institutions have conducted more than 2.8 million tests since students began returning to campus in mid-August. The result has been an average seven-day positive test rate that hasn’t gone above 0.37 percent, compared with a statewide rate that hovers around 4 percent.


But it’s also true — based on studies from Wuhan, Iceland, Britain, and throughout Europe — that transmission of the virus is less likely among younger children in particular. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also found the prevalence of the virus increases with the age of the child — and that “COVID-19 incidence among adolescents aged 12–17 years was approximately twice that in children aged 5–11 years.”

That may be a comfort to parents concerned about their kids contracting the virus at school, though probably not to the teachers and staff who are in more precarious risk groups. But the evidence thus far suggests that schools have not been a major source of infections for adults, either.

Right now, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reports that 77 percent of the state’s 400 school districts are engaged in some form of in-person or hybrid learning. They estimate that some 450,000 students and 75,000 staff are present in school buildings, and for the week of Nov. 11 to Nov. 25, 276 students and 206 staff members tested positive for the virus. The only school system to report cases in double digits that week was Methuen, with 15.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders told a news conference this week that the state’s COVID-19 rapid response team has been brought in to deal with “developing clusters” at schools when alerted by local health officials. DESE officials told WGBH News the mobile unit has been deployed to 13 school districts since August.


The state education department is able to offer one carrot to some 134 school systems that have opted for in-person learning, and that’s access to a relatively new rapid antigen test that should be made available this month. The state received 2 million of the test kits through a federal program.

The protocol set out by DESE calls for use of the test only for those who have symptoms “consistent with COVID-19,” which is when antigen testing is most accurate. But it is not the swab-every-nose testing that colleges have used.

Tufts University, in cooperation with the Broad Institute, announced a “pooled” testing program to kick off in January for the Medford and Somerville public school systems. (It is currently doing individual testing of teachers and staff in those systems and splitting the cost.) The “pooled” system — which basically puts eight swabs in one container, triggering a second round of tests only if there’s a positive outcome — costs about a third of individual testing.

The Broad is also working with CIC Health in Cambridge on pilot programs that could make routine testing more accessible to public schools in 2021.

And that seems the go-to time frame for school systems like Boston’s to get students back into classrooms.


Walsh said he wanted to “begin the process” of reopening schools in the new year. (Only about 170 high-needs students are currently engaged in in-person, in-school programs.)

Meanwhile, the data on the detrimental impact of months of remote learning, especially on Black, Hispanic, and low-income students, is mounting. Those students can’t afford to lose another semester of in-person learning. They can’t afford to wait for everyone to be vaccinated and for the arrival of some post-pandemic utopia to begin.

No one ever said it would easy to get 460,000 public school students in the state back into the classroom — and do it safely. But the tools are there to help make it safer — and it’s time public officials exercised the political will to make it happen.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.