Child care providers will be eligible for free COVID-19 testing next month at eight drive-through locations through a privately funded pilot program, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito announced on Monday.
PCR tests will be available to child care providers and the families they serve at eight locations — in Athol, Braintree, Billerica, Dalton, Franklin, Plymouth, Sturbridge and Westfield, officials said. The sites were chosen based on distance from current state-sponsored testing locations, and on the local concentration of child care providers, Polito said.
The offer follows complaints by early educators that Massachusetts was funding free, regular testing only in K-12 schools — but not to the staff of preschools and child care centers whose operation is essential for parents to return to work.
The child care testing pilot program is funded by BayCoast Bank and the Massachusetts Early Childhood Funder Collaborative, a newly formed nonprofit. But it is also far less sweeping than the surveillance testing the state will begin offering in public schools, at an estimated cost of $15 million to $30 million.
The pilot testing is intended to prevent temporary closures to child care programs by testing those who are symptomatic or who suspect they’ve been exposed to the virus.
It’s an “important first step,” said Amy O’Leary, one of the advocates urging the state to direct more resources to child care providers. However, she indicated state officials are still not adequately supporting early educators, who have worked on the front lines of the pandemic, as they are other teachers.
“We can’t keep making policies for one part of the education sector,” said O’Leary, director of Early Education for All at the advocacy group, Strategies for Children.
The state has often taken the approach that “people who are first responders and doing the work on the front lines should be supported first,” said O’Leary. “We as a state should be offering these safeguards to help support the people who we are counting on.”
The child care sector has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, with many centers being forced to close over the summer, and to limit their enrollment to accommodate COVID restrictions. Only about 82 percent of the state’s previous child care capacity is now available. The early education workforce is 92 percent female, and 32 percent people of color, according to the state Department of Early Education and Care.
Polito also announced on Monday that the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care would dedicate $8 million in state and federal funds on personal protective equipment (PPE) to distribute to child care providers at no cost. Providers will be able to order a one-month supply of PPE, including gloves, hand sanitizer, and masks for both children and adults.
The bank and the collaborative committed $450,000 to the initial eight-week pilot. Each testing site is expected to handle up to 400 tests a day, officials said.
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.