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Pool coronavirus testing is launching in more than 900 Massachusetts schools. Here’s how it works

A member of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham took it upon herself to set up a surveillance pool testing program for after-school workers. It has since expanded to the students there.
A member of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham took it upon herself to set up a surveillance pool testing program for after-school workers. It has since expanded to the students there.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

In the coming weeks, nearly 300,000 students across Massachusetts will be tested weekly for the coronavirus as part of a widespread pool testing program launching at 952 schools.

Fewer than 100 schools already have begun testing, and another 300 schools are expected to begin this week, according to data from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

State leaders hope the program, which is being offered to all Massachusetts school districts free of cost until mid-April, will give schools an additional mitigation strategy for safely bringing students back to school in person.

Governor Charlie Baker said Friday that pool testing will be a key tool in bringing students back for in-person learning and building “whatever the next normal’s going to be.”

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Schools should still incorporate other strategies for curbing the spread of the coronavirus, such as handwashing, mask-wearing, social distancing, and staying home when you feel sick, said Russell Johnston, senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“What pooled testing gives us is just more information about the effectiveness of those mitigation strategies and confidence that schools are safe places for learning,” he said. “They’re safe places for students and staff.”

Baker’s administration announced Tuesday that it hopes to start bringing students back for in-person learning five days a week in April, a phased-in return that will start with elementary school students and eventually expand to older students. State officials feel comfortable planning a return to in-person for a number of reasons, they said, including the pool testing program. They also cited the decline in new daily coronavirus cases, deaths, and hospitalization rates.

Teachers unions have, for months, pleaded with state leaders for frequent surveillance testing of students and staff members to identify asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus. When the state’s pool testing program was announced in January, many union leaders said the testing program was welcome news, but other mitigation steps are still vital.

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“It’s not the magic solution,” Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said at the time. “But it’s good news and long overdue.”

As pool testing ramps up in Massachusetts schools, let’s dive into how the program will work.

First thing’s first. What is pool testing?

Pool testing is a method in which multiple people’s test samples get bundled together to be processed as just one sample — an approach that has proven to be both faster and less expensive than traditional individual testing.

With pool testing, if a bundled sample comes back positive, everyone who was part of that bundle will be retested individually to determine who is positive for the coronavirus. If the bundled sample comes back negative, everyone who was part of that bundle will be considered negative for the coronavirus.

Has this been used before in Massachusetts?

Yes. Many colleges and universities have been using this method all year to regularly test their students and isolate those who test positive.

A handful of public school districts, including Salem, Watertown, and Wellesley, also have been routinely pool testing students and staff.

Who will get tested?

All students and staff members at participating schools will be offered testing. Any staff member at a school — not only educators — will be able to get tested.

“It’s really about the community and the prevalence of COVID from within the community, so we think the whole community should be part of the process,” Johnston said.

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People who get tested do not need to be symptomatic or have come into contact with a COVID-positive person.

How often will they get tested?

In schools that sign up for the program, students and staff members who are inside the schools will be tested once a week.

Who does the testing?

The state is coordinating contracts with three vendors that will do the testing: CIC Health, Concentric by Ginkgo, and Project Beacon.

Who is paying for this?

The state is covering the cost of the pool testing program for any districts that want to participate through April 18, a deadline that was recently extended. (Districts were initially told it would be free for just the first six weeks.)

This is expected to cost the state between $40 million and $60 million.

After April 18, districts that want to continue the pool testing program will have to pay for it themselves.

What school districts have signed up for the program?

Statewide, 155 school districts have confirmed participation in the program. That breaks down to 952 schools with 293,156 total students.

State officials did not have a complete list of communities to share with the Globe Wednesday, but a state spokeswoman said several large cities already have signed on. Boston Public Schools are expected to start pool testing in March.


Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.