In response to staffing shortages that caused COVID-19 testing delays in many Massachusetts school districts, Governor Charlie Baker activated up to 200 members of the National Guard on Tuesday to assist with testing in public K-12 schools.
Though more than 2,200 public and private schools have signed up to participate in at least one of the state’s three coronavirus testing programs, only about 1,350 had reported testing data as of Oct. 7. It’s difficult to say exactly how many schools are currently participating in testing programs, though, because the state relies on schools to self report results of both rapid tests and test-and-stay efforts, said administration spokeswoman Colleen Quinn. Only pooled testing results are reported directly from labs to the state.
Guard members will begin training for COVID-19 testing in schools this week and are set to begin assisting with testing in schools on Monday. It’s not clear how long the National Guard assistance in schools will last.
The state has increasingly called upon the National Guard to fill gaps during the pandemic. Amid a school bus driver shortage last month, up to 250 members were activated to help transport children to school; that help has since been expanded to up to 13 districts. Despite national bus driver shortages, Massachusetts is believed to be the only state to deploy the National Guard to drive schoolchildren. Last year, members were also sent to nursing homes to assist with COVID-19 testing. And on Tuesday, Baker also activated up to 250 National Guard members to offset potential staffing shortages at the Department of Correction.
The expanded roles in schools have drawn concern from some who worry that the presence of uniformed members on buses or inside school buildings could be intimidating for some families, particularly in communities with large immigrant populations. State law allows the governor to call upon the Guard during local or statewide emergencies. Others, however, have said the help is necessary and are appreciative of the extra support.
“We are grateful that the National Guard has stepped up once again, as they have throughout the COVID-19 response, to serve the Commonwealth where needed,” Baker said in a statement. “Today’s activations will ensure that we have additional staffing support for our school testing programs to help kids stay safe and will allow DOC to respond to possible staffing shortages.”
State education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, in the same statement, thanked the National Guard for helping “school districts handle some operational challenges in order to continue to keep students, teachers and staff safe.”
The decision to activate the National Guard came after state Representative Mindy Domb had pressured the administration to do so late last month.
“Clearly the inconsistent rollout of the pooled testing program could be jeopardizing the health of our school communities, including the most vulnerable students, those who are under age 12 and ineligible for vaccination at this time,” Domb wrote in a letter to Baker and other state leaders last month.
Schools can participate free of charge this year in up to three programs: Testing for individuals that have symptoms at school, pooled testing for large groups of students and staff members, and the test-and-stay program that examines close contacts and allows those students and staff to stay in school unless they test positive.
Massachusetts is one of just a handful of states utilizing the test-and-stay program, Quinn said.
Staffing shortages have appeared to be the main challenge facing districts trying to launch COVID-19 testing. Testing has been a significantly heavier lift for the state this year, with more than double the number of districts signing up for testing services and with the addition of test and stay.
In Milton, for instance, there weren’t enough staff members at first to launch their test-and-stay program, said Superintendent James Jette. The district recently received an additional nurse from CIC Health and expected to have the program up and running this week.
Without test and stay, about 149 students and staff in the district have had to quarantine as of last week because they came in contact with someone who had the coronavirus, Jette said. Only two of those close contacts ultimately tested positive. With test and stay, the other 147 people could have remained in school.
“It has huge educational and social emotional implications,” he said. “When you miss a day of school, we’re not set up all the time to say, ‘OK, we’re going to be livestreaming and the student’s going to get what they would get if they were in person.’ ”
CIC Health, the vendor providing testing for schools, has hired more than 1,500 people to support school testing, but still is working to hire additional staff members. It “expects to have this resolved within the next few weeks,” according to the state.
John vonGoeler, whose 11-year-old daughter attends the Gibbs School in Arlington, said pool testing launched there about a week after the start of school and has been operating relatively smoothly. However, vonGoeler said he’s concerned about the absence of student cohorts that keep students with designated groups and the lack of communication about positive tests schoolwide.
He and his wife only get notified about positive coronavirus test results for his daughter’s pool, despite the fact that she interacts with many other groups of students, he said.
“The best way to be safe is to really have some information as quickly as possible,” he said. “I feel like at this point, Arlington does their part on the testing. It’s the other parts that are lacking.”