Thousands of Massachusetts day-care providers will be able to regularly screen children and employees for COVID-19 this summer, thanks to a new partnership between the state and a local nonprofit.
Neighborhood Villages, a child-care advocacy group, is teaming up with the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care to offer free weekly pooled COVID-19 testing for child-care programs throughout the state.
The initiative, which relies on testing kits from the genetic-sequencing company Veritas, will test roughly 6,000 children, teachers, and staff per week throughout the summer, with the potential for expansion in the fall if there is enough demand.
In pooled testing, samples from multiple people are tested together to obtain quicker results. If the pool tests negative, all samples are recorded as negative. If the pool tests positive, samples in that pool are tested individually to identify positive cases.
While the state has offered pooled testing for children and teachers in K-12 schools since February, it hasn’t provided coordinated testing for early education programs. Now, with adults and children over 12 eligible for vaccination, advocates are pushing for more testing among young children.
By launching the program, “Massachusetts is declaring that early educators, families, and children are not on their own when it comes to COVID testing,” said Sarah Muncey, a copresident and cofounder of Neighborhood Villages.
Massachusetts is the first state in the nation to establish coordinated testing for child-care facilities, Muncey added.
The program will distribute a month’s worth of testing kits to all participating child-care centers, and collect them at central “hubs.” Once the samples reach the Veritas lab, providers can expect results within 24 hours.
Neighborhood Villages began piloting the program with Boston-area child-care centers in December 2020, using donations from the Commonwealth Children’s Fund. Now, the organization will receive an initial $100,000 investment from the Department of Early Education and Care to take the project statewide for the summer. If there is still demand in the fall, Neighborhood Villages could get more money from the state to expand the program, with the potential to reach every child-care center in the Commonwealth, project organizers said.
Organizers said the pilot project brought peace of mind for families enrolled in the participating centers.
“It can help child-care settings prevent transmission and make sure that we keep programs open and serving working families,” said Department of Early Education and Care Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy.
The program also aims to put child-care employees at ease. At Horizons for Homeless Children in Roxbury, which participated in the pilot, staff members praised the program for offering reassurance as they endeavored to help families already challenged by the pandemic.
“It is a very big relief for me,” said Agnella Gross, a teacher at Horizons who is immunocompromised. “It’s just kind of nice to have that safety net of testing teachers, and then the availability for the families.”
Aigner-Treworgy believes the program could also help entice child-care employees who left their jobs to come back to work. After a year of health restrictions that reduced early education enrollments and the need for a full staff, the state’s reopening has caused an explosion of demand for child care, and facilities are currently starved for workers.
But not every provider is ready to ramp up: As of last week, only 550 Massachusetts child-care providers had opened their doors, down from 687 before the pandemic, according to the Department of Early Education and Care.
The child-care crunch could present a problem for employers and employees alike — one reason why Muncey sees child care as “critical infrastructure.”
“When child-care programs close, children suffer,” Muncey said. “Parents can’t work, a major part of our workforce is impacted, and our economic recovery is impacted for everyone.”
For those facilities that are up and running, though, the opportunity for free COVID-19 testing awaits. Neighborhood Villages is registering centers for the program now on a first-come, first-served basis. The organization is recommending that providers who are interested in participating fill out the form as soon as possible at maearlyedtesting.com.