As students prepare to go back to school in many districts across Massachusetts, the state is preparing for the possibility of COVID-19 outbreaks at schools.
Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday that his administration plans to roll out a rapid response testing program that can be made available to any school in the state that meets certain criteria, like having two or more students in the same classroom test positive within two weeks.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Department of Public Health will release guidance detailing exactly how the program, which could be similar to a program the National Guard conducted at nursing homes this spring, will function.
"This program will be designed to quickly deliver testing resources for students and school personnel if there are multiple cases in a cohort that requires larger-scale testing than a community may have access to currently," Baker said. "This program can be deployed to test students within a particular classroom or other groups."
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders gave a handful of examples of situations that would warrant a school system and its local board of health requesting that the state deploy rapid response testing.
"For example, if two or more students or staff within the classroom group develop COVID within a 14-day period and transmission exposure appeared to have occurred in the classroom; if more than 3% of the cohort or grade — which means at least three individuals — develop COVID-19 within 14 days; if more than 3% of the school develops COVID-19 within 14 days and there's evidence of transmission within the school; if three or more staff within the same school developed COVID-19 within that 14 day period and there's evidence of transmission among staff; and if two or more students on the bus develop COVID-19 within 14 days," Sudders said.
The secretary, who also leads the state's COVID-19 Command Center, said the Baker administration sees the school testing program "as a response to schools concerned about cluster development."
With the new school year scheduled to begin next month, Baker and his administration have made clear that they would prefer students to physically return to classrooms for at least some amount of time this fall while three of the state's largest teachers' unions — AFT Massachusetts, Boston Teachers Union, and Massachusetts Teachers Association — have demanded that the school year start remotely, with in-person teaching only phased in later if certain health and safety standards are met.
Based on the school reopening plans submitted to the state as of Monday, Baker said earlier this week that 70% of districts are planning to conduct some sort of in-classroom education this fall. On Thursday, he said 314 of the state's 351 cities and towns "are experiencing next to no viral spread" and fall into the state's two lowest risk categories.
"The implementation of these safety measures combined with the low transmission rates we have here in Massachusetts mean that for most students and their families, in-person learning is an option that they can pursue," the governor said.
Baker pointed to the spat between the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District and its local union, which has pushed to take in-person instruction off the table until at least February, according to MassLive. Instead, the district approved a plan to start the year with virtual learning for most students and with in-person learning to be phased in over an eight-week period. The governor said people should read the district's statement on its plan.
"They make a very strong case that the guidance, criteria, working environment, all the rest of the elements that they put forward, were completely consistent with the science and advice and guidance that's been issued by the national players in this space as well as, in some cases, the global players," Baker said. "And then some of the issues that were being raised by the union just don't even make any sense."
Baker said he understands "the importance of making sure that this be done safely," but added, "I would also ask people to respect the science, which at this point is developing a fairly decent body of evidence with respect to what works and what doesn't when it comes to teaching in-person."
A new study from Massachusetts General Hospital that circulated Thursday found that "children may be a potential source of contagion in the [COVID-19] pandemic in spite of milder disease or lack of symptoms."
Essentially, children can get the coronavirus and have high levels of the virus in their systems. The results contribute to growing questions about whether and how often children may transmit the virus to other people despite often showing less severe or no symptoms of infection.
Sandra Fenwick, CEO of Boston Children's Hospital, said earlier Thursday during a New England Council event that there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to children and the coronavirus.
"The [U.S. Centers for Disease Control] put forward the fact that in the rest of the country we're starting to see children between the age of zero and 17 increasing with positivity, and the question there is is this a because of some of the schools that are going back?" Fenwick said. "Is it because we're going back to more density? And is density the question that's really been driving some of this increase? Clearly we need more data and we need more testing to understand this."
Fenwick added that kids have lower infection rates and hospitalization rates than adults, but that when they do get sick, "they get very sick and their rate of being in the ICU is about the same."
State teachers' unions say the move is a step in the right direction.
“Governor Baker is finally acknowledging the necessity of having rapid COVID-19 testing available to students and educators,” said Merrie Najimy, the president of Massachusetts Teachers Association.
But, she adds, the program still falls short. Union leaders in Massachusetts have been pushing for regular testing in schools. Najimy argues that Baker’s plan for emergency testing support “recklessly creates false confidence.”
At the tail end of his Thursday press conference, Baker pointed out that while most public schools sent kids home for the rest of the year back in the spring, special education schools have continued in-person teaching and support without significant problems.
"Kids are wearing masks, instructors are wearing masks, and the programs are basically working and they've been working and they involve a lot of close contact," he said. "This can be done. And, as I've said before, we need to commit to the science we believe we have, but we also need to commit to the kids."
The governor on Thursday also said that his administration will extend its Stop the Spread testing initiative "in several communities with the highest rate of COVID through the end of September" to ensure there's sufficient access to testing as teachers and students return to classroom settings.
With additional reporting by WBUR's Carrie Jung
This article was originally published on August 20, 2020.