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‘This is our moment’: In Medford, Katherine Clark says federal funding makes full-time, in-person learning possible

US Representative Katherine Clark and first-grade student Yanelys Canales looked over school work together at a desk with clear plastic shielding at McGlynn Elementary School in Medford on Thursday.
US Representative Katherine Clark and first-grade student Yanelys Canales looked over school work together at a desk with clear plastic shielding at McGlynn Elementary School in Medford on Thursday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

MEDFORD — The McGlynn Elementary School first graders who greeted Representative Katherine Clark on Thursday were enthusiastic and grateful to be back in the classroom, the assistant speaker of the House said after touring the school and seeing its pool testing program in action.

“The students were unanimous in being so grateful for being back in the classroom. Lots of ‘I’m glad to see my friends again.’ Lots of enthusiasm. I asked one girl if she minded the plastic [around desks] and she said, ‘No, I’m used to it,’” Clark, a Melrose Democrat, told reporters outside the school, where elementary students have returned to full-time, in-person instruction.

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Medford’s McGlynn Elementary, which is connected to the middle school of the same name, is among the 90 percent of Massachusetts elementary schools that have children in full-time, in-person classes as of this week.

Clark and local leaders agreed the return to school has been possible largely due to the pool testing program that regularly tests students and staff members and isolates anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 to prevent further spread. Pool testing has been launched in more than 1,000 schools across Massachusetts and has been free of charge to districts, covered in part by federal funding.

Before statewide pool testing started in schools in late February, Medford had been using individual swab testing for students and teachers since late September, a program made possible by a collaboration with Tufts University.

“The testing truly was the game-changer for Medford,” Superintendent Dr. Marice Edouard-Vincent said, speaking with Clark outside the school. “The testing is the game-changer in terms of keeping kids in school and keeping your community safe and healthy.”

Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn agreed, calling the testing program a “godsend.”

First-grade student Karma Yeshi got a swab test from RN Carla Constanza.
First-grade student Karma Yeshi got a swab test from RN Carla Constanza.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Testing is just one of the tools Clark hopes school districts will implement using federal funding from the “American Rescue Plan,” the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package signed into law by President Biden in March.

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In the plan, Massachusetts schools are set to receive more than $3 billion, Clark said Thursday; Medford alone is expected to receive more than $5 million.

The funding, Clark said, is intended to help school districts safely reopen their schools, paying for improvements to HVAC systems, technology, and personal protective equipment. The plan also allocates money for districts to help students make up for lost learning time, potentially in the form of summer school or after-school programs.

“We know that kids have lost time and they have lost academic achievement,” Clark said. “Parents should take heart in knowing” that part of the new federal funding “is specifically aimed at making sure that schools are developing those types of programs to help our kids get back up to grade-level learning and have all the success and achievement they deserve,” she added.

The return of most elementary school students in Massachusetts to full-time, in-person learning comes as coronavirus cases tick up statewide and in public schools.

On Thursday, state education officials reported 821 new coronavirus cases among students and 157 among school staff members for the week that ended Wednesday. Though the number of new cases among staff members dropped this week — likely a result of more educators getting vaccinated — it was the highest weekly report of students cases all academic year.

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Clark said Thursday the numbers are concerning, but it’s one of the reasons that the American Rescue Act funding is coming at such a “critical time.”

“There was some criticism of the American Rescue Plan that maybe we were beyond the need, but what we were hearing from communities was that now is not the time to pull back, but to make sure that we continue to invest, so we can have testing programs like we’ve seen in Medford,” she said. “That is why the American Rescue Plan is so comprehensive, so that we can get ahead of these caseloads as we see them rising and help communities meet [them] with success.”

Susan Renaud's first-grade classroom uses protective plastic shields around the student's desks.
Susan Renaud's first-grade classroom uses protective plastic shields around the student's desks.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

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