Visiting a Newburyport school on Friday, Governor Charlie Baker said the pool testing program that has launched in hundreds of Massachusetts schools in recent weeks will be a key tool in bringing students back for in-person learning and building “whatever the next normal’s going to be.”
“To get to the point where this thing is really starting to rock and roll is a real pleasure I think for all of us who were looking to find a relatively uncomplicated way for schools to implement a weekly surveillance program,” Baker said, speaking after seeing the school’s pool testing program in action.
The program “is something that got launched as a first-in-the-nation demonstration a few months ago,” Baker said.
Joining Baker at the Nock-Molin Middle School on Friday was the city’s mayor, Donna D. Holaday, superintendent Sean Gallagher, Secretary of Education James Peyser, and Jeffrey Riley, the commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“This pool testing now and surveillance testing is another tool that will continue to help us advance and bring more and more children back to in-person learning,” Holaday said, adding that it was a “joy” just to be at an event in person, rather than on Zoom.
The widespread pool testing program was offered to all public schools in the state earlier this year. A total of 952 schools have confirmed their participation in the program, meaning nearly 300,000 students and thousands of staff members will be tested for the coronavirus weekly.
Riley said Friday he expects more school districts will join in the coming days.
With most initiatives during the pandemic, Baker said, “there have been first movers, fast followers, and then the rest.”
Baker thanked Newburyport for being part of the early days of the pool testing program.
“In some respects, your enrollment in this pool testing initiative is a big part of how we keep kids, faculty, and staff safe as we move forward with all we can do to try to make sure that kids have that personal and professional and physical opportunity to spend time in school,” Baker said.
Pool testing is a method that tests multiple people at once, pools their results together, and then tests the bundled group as a single sample. If the bundle comes back positive, all individuals are retested to determine who is positive for the coronavirus (and who could be a close contact). If the bundle comes back negative, all people within the group are considered to be negative for the coronavirus.
Fewer than 100 schools had begun testing prior to this week, and another 300 schools were expected to begin by the end of this week, according to a spokeswoman from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The program is free for districts until mid-April; the state is covering the expenses during those weeks, which is expected to cost between $40 million and $60 million. Districts will have the option to continue the pool testing program beyond mid-April if they pay for it themselves.
The goal, state leaders have said, is to provide an additional mitigation strategy for safely bringing students back to school in person. Schools should still endorse hand-washing, mask-wearing, social distancing, and staying home when you feel sick, Russell Johnston, a senior associate commissioner at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, told the Globe earlier this week.
The 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. 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.
Reflecting on the upcoming one-year anniversary of Massachusetts schools first closing because of the pandemic, Baker said that students have dealt with isolation and learning loss over the past year, and it’s vital that school districts find ways to bring children back to school in person.
“Over the course of the last 12 months, it’s been incredibly challenging for kids, for families, for teachers, for schools, to work their way through all this and to find a way to try to keep kids engaged, involved, and growing and learning despite the difficulties that have come with the pandemic,” he said.
Baker on Friday also honored Cathy Riccio, the director of nursing and health services for Newburyport Public Schools, who was recently named School Nurse Administrator of the Year by the Massachusetts School Nurse Organization.
Riccio received a governor’s citation Friday in recognition of her work.
John Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.