For the last 10 months, COVID-19 has done everything to separate students and staff from the high school, but a new form of testing may have a strange way of bringing us together. In early January, Governor Baker announced the “Pooled Testing Initiative” for Massachusetts school districts. “Pooled testing is a way to pull together and test groups of people in batches,” says Superintendent Dr. Marty O’Shea. It involves combining samples from several people and conducting one COVID-19 test on the combined pool of samples. The application for this program is due this Thursday and Dr. O’Shea has said he will go ahead and apply “just to make sure we are still in a position to do it,” although he notes “there is complexity to this that we need to understand further” and a need to consult with other stakeholders in town.
Dr. O’Shea delves deeper into this, and breaks down the process, saying, “If there’s a positive case within the pool, you can drill down deeper with some subsequent testing to identify the positive case in the pool,” which is a process called “reflex testing.” These tests can be administered by any trained staff, and students within certain age groups will be able to take their own samples under supervision. This new form of testing has the potential to expedite bringing students back to the high school for more days.
According to a webinar which was available to school district administrators, “The use of these tools and resources (pooled testing within the school) will increase districts’ capacity and resiliency to maintain safety for students, faculty and staff by keeping transmission in schools low.” Sophomore Hannah Rosenman, also feels this new form of testing could help to lessen anxiety for in-person students and staff as well. She says, “I think this type of batch testing is good because more people can be tested at once.” She still has reservations about the effectiveness of rapid testing (shown in rare cases to give false positives) which is used to center in on a positive case after a “pool” has come back positive. “But I’m happy that they’re testing at all,” she says.
Dr. O’Shea adds that pooled testing is best suited for detecting asymptomatic cases, which is something that is rampant among high school students. Upon being asked whether this is a set-in-stone initiative, he says that Longmeadow has “signalled our interest to the Massachusetts Department of Education to let them know that we want to learn more about it.” He also notes that “ultimately it will be a decision for The School Committee” based on his recommendation, and that the final decision “will eventually go onto the Longmeadow Board of Health and Chief John Dearborn, who is the emergency manager of our town.”
Sophomore Sarah Baick notes the impact that this could have on sports currently and in the spring, saying, “I’d like to do softball this spring, but the way things currently are I don’t feel comfortable with it [right now].”
According to Dr. O’Shea, pooled testing is another mitigation strategy, as there is no single way to completely eliminate COVID-19 risk. He says pooled testing would “sit alongside all the other strategies that we have in place. Everything from mask-wearing, to distancing, to ventilation enhancements.” He cautions anyone from thinking that it’s something that can “miraculously put the risk behind us.” Dr. O’Shea also stresses that this needs to be done properly, and that Longmeadow is able to devote staffing to this new procedure, noting that the “Massachusetts Department of Education is scheduled to pick up the first six weeks of the cost, and after that it would be on the local school districts.”
Dr. O’Shea also brings up a difficult aspect of pooled-testing, which is the amount of medical personnel that would be needed to make this new initiative work. “School staff or nurses, or possibly contracted additional staff, would go around to classrooms and gather the samples,” he says. This would also require consent from the families as it would be done during school hours.
Longmeadow is not the only community interested in the pool testing initiative. During the state-sponsored webinar, people from three Massachusetts communities, Salem, Medford, and Watertown spoke on their experiences with the program. After this briefing, O’Shea recalls that they “spoke on the advantage that pooled testing has,” noting that it is a “cost-effective way to administer many tests at once.”
If implemented, although the time frame is uncertain, pooled testing will come prior to a vaccination clinic in Longmeadow.