The COVID-19 vaccines promise a brighter 2021. Scientists in Massachusetts helped lead a global effort for the history books: They did the impossible by developing a vaccine that proved to be 94 percent effective in a matter of months — an effort which normally takes a decade or more. Now, let’s do the hard part.
While we wait for widespread vaccination throughout the nation and the world, public officials should use emerging technology to scale COVID-19 testing and get students back into classrooms.
In-person learning is an imperative for Massachusetts and the nation. We’ve seen report after report telling us the same thing: Remote learning is not working. And communities of color and low-income families are bearing the brunt. Nationwide, more than three quarters of Black and Latinx students started the school year fully remote, compared to nearly half of white students who had the option for in-person learning. At schools where students of color are the majority, fifth grade math test scores have dropped to as low as 37 percent of scores over the previous three years. If students don’t get back to in-person learning soon, these educational losses will ossify as generational inequity.
School closures are also hampering economic recovery. Parents — and disproportionately mothers — are leaving the workforce due to increased caregiving responsibilities. In the long term, we will feel the effects of learning losses in the future earnings of today’s students. The Brookings Institution estimates that the long-term cost of just four months of lost education in the United States is $2.5 trillion, which amounts to 12.7 percent of annual GDP.
Vaccinations are the ultimate solution. But widespread, recurring COVID-19 testing in schools is the bridge solution. For most of the population, vaccination is months away. Neither approved vaccine has yet been tested in children. Meanwhile, cases are surging and many school districts don’t know how they will reopen after the holiday break. As President-elect Joe Biden said, the coming months will be the hardest of the pandemic.
Mass testing empowers individuals and organizations to break transmission chains. Individuals who test positive — whether or not they have symptoms — can quarantine before infecting others. It gives communities the confidence they need to open schools, and keep them open safely.
Mass testing is already sustaining in-person learning. More than 100 colleges in the Northeast have been using the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to process over 45,000 COVID-19 tests a day. That testing, in combination with masks and distancing, is minimizing outbreaks. Students have been in class since August.
Massachusetts is ready now to deploy low-cost mass testing to provide that same opportunity for public schools. Multiple testing providers have converged on pooled testing, a proven technology to use gold-standard COVID-19 tests to test multiple samples at once, bringing down the cost of a test to the price of a school lunch. This creates an opportunity for public schools to implement weekly screening testing that will give them similar reassurance and protections to the testing programs deployed by research universities in the fall. Organizations like CIC Health, the Broad Institute, Mirimus, Project Beacon, and Ginkgo Bioworks stand ready to partner with Massachusetts public school districts to pilot weekly pooled testing.
Just before Christmas, I hosted my second meeting with school and state officials across my district to discuss these pilots. Educators and administrators are making heroic efforts to teach kids. But they need help. Our school districts not only need funds for the tests themselves, but they also need support and resources, including additional staff, to operationalize testing programs.
Congress just authorized $900 billion in economic relief. It includes money for K-12 schools and for testing. Without delay, Massachusetts should put the money toward aiding and then scaling mass-testing pilots for schools. Using COVID-19 testing to get students back to school so that they don’t continue to fall behind is our bridge over a hard winter.
Jake Auchincloss is the US representative-elect for Massachusetts’s Fourth Congressional District.