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Newton to launch COVID-19 surveillance testing for school staff

Newton North High School.
Newton North High School.John Tlumacki

Newton will begin implementing COVID-19 surveillance testing this month for teachers and public school staff who come into contact with students, ahead of a planned reopening of the city’s high schools in January.

The reopening plan, approved Dec. 2 by the School Committee, calls for bringing back students for in-person classes as part of a hybrid program for Newton’s North and South high schools.

It also calls for classes to be live-streamed so students working from home are able to participate. The plan brings the high schools in line with younger grades, which already offer classes in buildings.

“We’re really trying to thread the needle between safety and in-person learning, which we think is incredibly important,” said Ruth Goldman, the School Committee’s chairwoman, in an interview.

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Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, in a statement released two days after the School Committee’s vote, announced voluntary surveillance testing for asymptomatic school staff who are working in-person starting this month.

“We expect to be able to test interested NPS staff working in-person at least once per month and potentially more often,” she said in the statement.

“The well-being of our staff and our students was at the center of the decision and I remain firmly committed to making this investment to support educational outcomes and the social, emotional and physical health of our NPS community,” Fuller said.

Newton’s plans to offer more in-person learning and step up testing come as Governor Charlie Baker and public health experts warn more infections will emerge because of Thanksgiving travel and festivities and that cases are likely to increase further due to the December holidays.

Many parents have expressed concerns that remote learning is not sufficient for students. There is broad consensus among educators that in-person classes are far superior, but Newton and other districts have grappled with adjusting schools to the realities of the pandemic.

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Goldman said the city’s schools already have implemented provisions such as mask-wearing and social distancing. For the high schools’ upcoming reopening, officials are organizing in-person students into cohorts to limit the number of people in buildings.

With four cohorts, students would attend school in person four days each month. A three-cohort plan would mean students would be inside buildings six days a month. Officials hope to have as few cohorts as possible.

“Many parents aren’t happy with the solution, because they don’t think kids will be in school enough. I’m sympathetic to that,” Goldman said, referring to the reopening plan. “I wish kids could be in school a lot more. On the other hand, I think it will be very safe.”

But many teachers remain concerned about working inside buildings, said Michael Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association, which represents about 2,000 teachers and staff. He said the city and schools must do more, such as expand COVID-19 testing for staff and make greater improvements to building ventilation systems.

“There is risk involved in being in the schools, and the conversation is not well served by saying the schools are safe enough,” Zilles said. “We need to do what we can, to make them as safe as we can.”

A group of parents also is calling on the city to expand surveillance testing for school teachers and staff. In a Monday letter to Fuller and other city and school officials, members of the group said they were worried about the frequency of the city’s announced testing, and called for greater testing of school staff.

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“Providing infrequent ‘surveillance’ testing might result in staff utilizing these tests only when worried about subtle symptoms or known exposures,” the letter said. “We assume this is not Newton’s goal for this testing.”

Kristin Ardlie, a Newton South parent and a senior research scientist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, said in an interview that there is frustration and anger among parents over officials’ handling of the reopening process for school buildings since the academic year began.

She signed the letter along with eight others, and the group is working as part of a regional effort to step up testing in local school districts. Ardlie said Newton officials have not done enough to engage the expertise among the city’s residents on areas like surveillance testing.

“I think the teachers feel like they haven’t been brought to the table as part of the process, but I think the parents feel that as well,” she said.

Samuel Scarpino, a Northeastern University epidemiologist who did not sign the letter, said surveillance testing needs to be conducted at least once a week to be effective.

“Everything I’ve seen suggests that anything longer than a week [and for sure less frequently than every-other-week] is unlikely to have an effect,” Scarpino said in an e-mail.

The city will pay for the tests with the hope of reimbursement through Newton’s allocation of the federal CARES Act, which was passed by Congress in the wake of the pandemic. Fuller has said the city is committed to paying for the tests if the government does not.

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Newton also is participating in a separate state pilot program announced for more than 130 school districts. The state program will offer rapid tests to screen people who display symptoms of infection, and will be launched early next year, Fuller said.

Fuller, in an interview, said more testing would be better, and noted details of the new surveillance program are still being worked out.

“We’re providing more access to testing, and free and convenient testing is another tool we’re using,” Fuller said. “We’re just starting up our program and learning as we go, finding out what is useful. A lot of the work in this pandemic is getting things up and going, adapting and making it better.”

David Fleishman, Newton’s school superintendent, said setting up a testing program is complex, but officials are open to expanding the effort.

“Our goal is to give teachers access to testing that is fast and convenient,” Fleishman said.

Goldman said she supports COVID-19 testing efforts in the schools, and hopes to see more of those opportunities. “It will provide a lot of assurance to staff,” she said.

Marc Laredo, a councilor-at-large representing Ward 7, said in an interview he would support additional testing proposed by advocates. Laredo is among councilors who have called for the schools to safely bring students back into classrooms as soon as possible.

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“Cost is not something we can disregard, but it is secondary to the health and wellbeing of our students, teachers, and staff,” Laredo said.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.