~ Submitted by Ann A. Kiessling, PhD
A joint memorandum from the Massachusetts Departments of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Public Health, released August 13, 2021, puts testing for SARS-CoV-2 at the center of keeping students, teachers and staff safe and in school for the upcoming year.
Termed “Test and Stay,” it is the most workable, public health-savvy approach to COVID safety in school systems proposed to date in the Commonwealth. Commissioner Riley and Acting Commissioner Margaret Cooke are to be commended for putting forth such a comprehensive program. https://www.doe.mass.edu/covid19/on-desktop/protocols/protocols.pdf
- Weekly Surveillance Testing of students and staff to identify SARS-CoV-2 infected individuals in real-time is the cornerstone of “Test and Stay.” Detecting and isolating infected persons, especially those with no symptoms, is the long established best public health method for protecting a community from the spread of an infectious disease.
- Only Infected Individuals Will Be Quarantined. To avoid interrupting school and activities of uninfected students and staff by unnecessary quarantining, positive pool test results will be immediately repeated for each pool member. Persons stay in school until repeat testing is complete, and only those individuals testing positive are quarantined.
- Close Contacts Stay In School with daily testing and symptoms checks, whether or not they are vaccinated. Fully vaccinated close contacts with no symptoms may not even need daily testing.
Will weekly testing miss a few infected persons? Not likely given the low infection rate in Bedford, hovering around 2%, which is undoubtedly an overestimate since the Select Board shut down the routine surveillance testing last summer. Should the positivity rate increase, pooled testing could be increased to twice weekly.
Will a positive test remain confidential? Undoubtedly, every effort will be made to follow prevailing HIPAA confidentiality regulations around protected health information. Moreover, routine testing will help eliminate the “guilt” associated with a positive SARS-CoV-2 test.
Is the Bedford Public School System planning to implement “Test and Stay?” From what is posted on their website, it looks as though Superintendent Conrad plans to implement “Test and Stay.” Its success in Bedford will depend on the participation of school families, and the resources needed to fully implement the program. Bedford can afford to get this right, even if it means hiring additional school staff to help.
More and more “point of care” tests are being developed by companies all over the world. Soon it will be possible to test school communities for both the flu and SARS-CoV-2 simultaneously. On-site PCR testing systems designed for ease of use have been developed by several companies with schools in mind. These exciting developments to improve school safety will need schools to have the resources and personnel they need for “Test and Stay” protocols.
Covid is here to stay, we need to learn to stay ahead of it, rather than living in fear from it. And Covid will not be our last pandemic. Our kids’ education may be the most important activity of a community – staying safely in school is key to that goal.