Just before lunchtime on October 1, a blue tent popped up outside Watertown middle school. In a sky checkered with clouds, a cool breeze rustled trees tinged with the yellows and oranges of fall.
It was perfect weather for collecting coronavirus tests.
Every few minutes, teachers and staff from around the school district pulled up in their cars and took a swab kit from one of two nurses, who mimed the twirling of the cotton fluff with their fingers.
Soon, the collection box was rattling with vials filled with swabs. It was a smooth operation – one that 160 Watertown schools staff and teachers will repeat weekly for at least three months.
“This is a great day,” said Watertown schools superintendent Deanne Galdston as she beamed at her employees from under the tent.
She was happy about the launch of this three-month pilot program. At the moment, only students with special needs are back in classrooms in her district, but Galdston hopes the new coronavirus testing will bring more Watertown students back to school and, of course, keep her teachers safe.
“It just feels good to finally be able to come through with another layer of assurance for our staff that we’re doing everything we can to be safe,” she said.
This great day was months in the making – and it almost didn’t happen. The state isn’t providing regular coronavirus testing for public school students or their employees, and Galdston thinks the testing she’s offering her teachers is probably only possible because Watertown joined a larger coalition of roughly a dozen Massachusetts school districts. They’re called the Collaborative. By banding together, Galdston said they were able to raise funding and work out the logistics to make testing work.
“I think that if we were alone, and we were the only district doing [coronavirus testing], I wonder in the end if I would have been able to secure a vendor that would work with just one district,” Galdston said.
Gov. Charlie Baker has urged school districts in communities with low coronavirus rates, including Watertown, to return for full in-person learning, but not all have heeded his calls. Some remain remote or have returned in-person only partially. School leaders cite several concerns including logistics, staffing and insufficient ventilation in older buildings.
The Collaborative began over the summer with Jesse Boehm, a cancer genomicist at the Broad Institute. He doesn’t work in coronavirus testing, but he is married to a high school teacher, and his kids attend local public schools.
“My major responsibility here is as a father of two in Wellesley, Mass.,” he said. “My wife and I were looking around and realizing that many organizations, colleges were implementing testing as part of their safety, back-to-school protocol. That conversation hadn’t begun in earnest in public school settings, so we took it upon ourselves to build a [testing] framework that the commonwealth could adopt.”
Boehm thinks there’s nothing more important right now than getting kids, his own included, back inside schools. Even in a pandemic, Boehm said classrooms should be relatively safe if everyone follows basic precautions like mask-wearing and distancing. The trouble, he said, is that nobody knows that for sure.
“We don’t have the data that actually demonstrates it’s safe. As a result, there’s a wide range of opinions. There’s tremendous fear and anxiety in any educator communities, and parents and students have mixed emotions about the return to in-person learning,” Boehm said. “We realized that the way to replace fear is with actual data.”
And the only way to get data, Boehm added, is to do coronavirus testing in schools. He’s optimistic that by serving parents and educators with evidence that outbreaks aren’t occurring in schools, their fears and anxieties will dry up and classrooms will fill.
“I do believe it will help calm people down and give them a sense of safety,” said Chelsea schools superintendent, Almudena Abetya.
Chelsea is also part of the testing pilot. Abetya said many of her teachers pushed back against her plans for reopening because they were worried in-person learning would lead to outbreaks. Chelsea has one of the highest incidences of the coronavirus in the state, and in-person classrooms are on hold. Abetya hopes that coronavirus testing might allow her to make an exception for students who need special attention, are homeless or learning English.
“It’s about psychological safety – knowing that I’m safe and therefore can do my job and teach and have peace of mind,” Abetya explained. “So, we’re trying to use [testing] as a way to work with our constituents and teachers and say, ‘Is there a possible way to bring back our special needs, our most vulnerable students back?' ”
If Abetya is able to bring those students back, the Collaborative will help arrange coronavirus testing for them and their teachers by working with the state’s “Stop the Spread” initiative, which offers free testing in Chelsea.
Boehm said the laboratories running coronavirus tests for the Collaborative are doing it on a not-for-profit basis. Each district designed its own testing pilot program, and they vary slightly. Some, like Watertown, are testing teachers and staff that are in-person weekly, while others are testing staff weekly and giving students a "one time" back-to-school test when they first return to in-person learning.
All of the districts are providing testing for any student or staff member with symptoms of COVID-19. But there still isn’t enough funding for the districts to regularly test their entire staff and student populations.
That means there’s a chance an outbreak could start to form in a school without being immediately caught by the tests, said Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard University who isn’t involved with the Collaborative. The only sure way to catch outbreaks and stop them in their tracks is with widespread testing as frequent as every week or multiple times a week, he said.
“Without high-frequency testing, you’re really just kind of keeping a pulse,” Mina said.
That can be good during what Mina refers to as “peacetime,”
meaning when coronavirus infection rates are low. It might allow school districts to conserve precious resources when there aren’t a lot of cases.
“But when you get into a school system, you’ll want to actually stop the outbreaks from happening, not just keep a pulse on it,”
Mina said. “What I would like to see is a dynamic approach where if cases start to arise in school and if an outbreak happens, we have a way to quickly jump in with accelerated testing.”
Gov. Baker does have a rapid testing program planned for public schools that experience outbreaks. One of the criteria that would trigger the program is having two or more students or staff in a single classroom or school bus route test positive for the coronavirus.
The Collaborative’s Boehm agreed that limited testing might not catch every outbreak early on, but he said even some testing will help lower COVID-19 risks in schools. And he’s hopeful more funds will eventually become available. Boehm said in recent meetings with Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders, the Collaborative has discussed becoming a state-sponsored program. That endorsement, he hopes, could lead to more resources. Gov. Baker’s administration did comment in time for publication of this article.
In the meantime, the Collaborative is a start for its participating districts, which include Chelsea, Wellesley, Revere and Somerville. In Watertown, after teaching assistant Amanda Swinchoski had finished taking her first coronavirus test, she said a negative result would let her know that all the basic COVID-19 precautions she’s been taking in her classroom are working.
“We have come kind of a complete circle, that we’ve closed the loop," she said. "Otherwise, it’s sort of an unknown. So, it does give you more confidence that everybody is safe.”
Having weekly testing also gives educators some personal assurance too, added Lauren Kale,
an elementary school teacher who works with Swinchoski. Having received a recent negative test result herself – along with learning that everyone else had also tested negative in the last week – let her know that she wasn’t bringing the coronavirus back home to her family.
“I just want them safe as well, so having these results would help me feel more comfortable seeing them or having them come to me visiting. And I can still feel comfortable going in my classroom,” Kale said.
And, so far, none of the educators in Watertown have tested positive for the coronavirus. If the Collaborative is able to raise more funds, the districts hope to extend the testing beyond the pilot program’s initial three months and expand it to include as many students as possible.
This segment aired on October 13, 2020.