The Monomoy Regional School District launched a pooled COVID-19 testing program this week, designed to identify spread of the disease among students and teachers who show no symptoms. But as of Tuesday, only about half of the school population had agreed to be tested.
Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter said more permission slips are being received each day, and he hopes by the end of the four-week pooled testing program, participation might increase to around 75 percent.
Fully funded by the state through April 18, the program uses self-administered nasal swabs from students and teachers to submit for a single COVID-19 test; if a positive result is returned, the participants get tested individually to isolate those with the virus. Monomoy is among around 950 schools in Massachusetts taking part in the program, providing weekly testing for a total of around 300,000 students, teachers and staff.
“We have done everything that we can as a district, throughout this, to make our schools as safe as we possibly can for in-person learning,” Carpenter said. For that reason, opting in to the pooled testing program made sense, he said. Monomoy is the first district on Cape Cod to take part.
Some research indicates that, after just four weeks of pooled testing in its school system, a community can reduce spread of COVID-19 by half, the superintendent said. On Friday, Gov. Charlie Baker visited a school in Newburyport, Mass., to tout the program.
“We’re looking to find a relatively uncomplicated way for schools to implement their weekly surveillance program,” Baker said. The results, which come several days after each pooled test, answer a question that’s first in the minds of school administrators everywhere, “which is, what’s going on in my building every week?” the governor said. The pooled testing has been well received by participating districts, he said.
At Monomoy, Carpenter said that well over half of the staff and about 50 percent of in-person learners were taking part in the pooled testing, which began Monday.
“I think some parents were hesitant at first,” he said. Each day, more parents give the necessary consent for their children to be tested, but Carpenter said he has concerns about the response rate.
“Fifty percent is better than nothing,” he said. If the pooled testing program only reaches half of the school population, “it means we can catch half of the asymptomatic cases,” he said.
Asked why some people have declined to take part in the testing, Carpenter said he has no easy answers.
“COVID is political,” he said. “There are clearly some families out there that don't feel that COVID is a thing.” To other families in the school community, particularly those who have lost loved ones to the pandemic, there is no question about the threat, he said.
Pooled testing increases the number of individuals that can be tested at one time; the tests will be performed once per week for seven weeks starting March 1 through April 18. Whether the district extends pooled testing beyond April 18 will depend upon the overall success of the initiative, both in the number of people participating and the reduction of COVID-19 rates. Should the district opt to continue the program after that date, it will need to identify funding to do so.
In pooled testing, staff and all participating students in grade two and above swab their own noses, and school nurses facilitate the swabbing of pre-K, kindergarten, and grade one students. After swabbing, students deposit their swab in the classroom collection tube and sanitize their hands, and in less than a minute, pooled testing is done and the day’s lesson begins. Schools will receive the pool results within 24-48 hours. If the result of the pool is negative, then all individuals are presumed to not have COVID-19. If the result of the pool is positive, then all individuals in the pool must be retested individually. Monomoy schools have been provided tests to use for this follow-up testing, which allows students and staff in a positive pool to be tested and receive individual results in 15 minutes.
“Combined with masking, six-foot distancing in our classrooms, and frequent sanitizing, pooled testing will allow our students even more in-person learning time, while we also work to lower community rates of COVID,” Carpenter said. In an effort to ensure that the program does not create additional work for teachers or nursing staff, the MRSD central office staff and administrators have managed much of the planning and logistics.
It will be later this week before the first pooled test results are returned, and Carpenter said he naturally hopes that they come back negative. Still, a positive test would mean the system is working.
“This has the potential to catch some of those [asymptomatic cases] before they spread to others, and that’s the hope,” he said.
Parents and families have been excellent partners in the fight against the virus at Monomoy, he said. Most families have complied with the requirement to keep children home if they have even the mildest symptoms of illness, which has been helpful. And Carpenter said he is hopeful that there won’t be any surge of cases related to school vacation week, which was the week before last.
“We are very grateful that families that went out of state, I think most of them did what we asked them to, which was to get tested before your child comes back to school,” he said. Whether there are cases related to play-dates, sleep-overs and birthday parties remains to be seen. “The spread that we’re dealing with is spread within families generally, and sometimes between families,” rather than happening between people at school, Carpenter said.