Early education, child care and after-school programs will soon have access to free, weekly coronavirus testing.
Starting in mid-June, the state is funding the pooled testing program for any providers. Now, educators, staff and children will be able to submit saliva samples on-site instead of having to travel to a testing location.
"Massachusetts is declaring that early educators, families and children are not on their own when it comes to COVID testing and protecting themselves during this pandemic," said Sarah Muncey, co-founder of the advocacy group Neighborhood Villages, which created and will administer the program.
The program roll out comes days after the state abruptly lifted coronavirus-related health mandates for early education and child care providers, and instead recommended that programs keep mask, hygiene and distancing requirements if they so choose.
"Offering pooled testing to EEC licensed programs highlights the importance of regular, proactive efforts to make sure that we are keeping staff, children and families safe as we move through the recovery period," state Early Education and Care Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy said.
Neighborhood Villages organized and funded a pilot program this winter. Muncey said with testing, they were able to decrease positivity rates at participating early learning and after-school programs from 3% to 0.01%.
"Testing has been an important strategy for our child care community to make sure that our workforce feels safe, that children and families can know that when a child wakes up with a runny nose that they have been able to ensure that the child care center is a safe place to bring them and there isn't transmission happening," Aigner-Treworgy said.
Each tests costs $8. The state is expecting to pay $100,000 to run the program through the summer with Neighborhood Villages planning to match those funds.
While most children appear to be less likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19 than adults, children represent about 14% of cases in the U.S., according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The latest state report shows 4,154 children and around 3,650 staff have tested positive since August 24, 2020.
Being able to identify cases early — before symptoms appear, or even catching asymptomatic cases — can help providers keep classrooms or programs open. Some had to close classrooms or entire programs temporarily after a child or staff member tested positive.
"When child care programs close, children suffer," Muncey said. "Parents can't work, a major part of our workforce is impacted and our economic recovery is impacted for everyone."