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With cases surging, Massachusetts officials will 'pivot' on COVID testing in schools05:02
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Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at a press conference at the State House in December 2021. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at a press conference at the State House in December 2021. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The omicron variant has changed the COVID-19 pandemic, and Massachusetts is beginning to shift its approach to the virus in schools.

As he announced plans to provide free rapid antigen tests to schools and child care providers starting next week, Gov. Charlie Baker spoke of a strategic “pivot” away from cost-intensive and centralized viral surveillance, and toward monitoring at the household level.

Baker touted the existing state-run system, especially its "test and stay" program, as "massively successful" at keeping kids out of quarantine and in classrooms. But he also signaled that managing it requires significant resources in both schools and testing laboratories, and that “the current state of the pandemic requires that we adapt our efforts to meet the times.”

The latest surge has put particular strain on the state-run surveillance programs, often run by cooperation between school nurses and staff from CIC Health — the private, Cambridge-based contractor tasked with testing logistics at around 2,000 Massachusetts schools.

In several districts, including Cambridge and Lincoln, CIC Health returned test results either days late or not at all after samples expired.

One parent, Yahaira Lopez of Randolph, said she and others have encountered baffling discrepancies between the results reported by school staff and the company’s web portal. Lopez said she was left unsure whether one or both of her twin boys had tested positive, only to learn from a nurse that the error was CIC Health's site.

“We were in complete panic mode,” Lopez said. “What is concerning to me is, how often are these mistakes happening?”

A representative for CIC Health did not comment on any pattern of inaccurate reporting. But in a statement, she did acknowledge that “end-to-end turn-around times … have temporarily increased” due to staffing shortfalls, instances of mislabeling and the overall demand for testing.

Baker also resurfaced evidence that in-school spread of COVID-19 has been relatively rare this academic year. But some parents and advocates aren’t entirely reassured.

Like the number of cases reported among students and staff, the positivity rate in school-based pooled tests surged dramatically last week to over 20% — five times the previous high. And while young people still face a relatively low risk of developing serious illness from COVID, the statewide rate of pediatric hospitalizations for or with COVID-19 has quintupled since Dec. 23.

Of course, families' experiences vary widely. While many parents still do see in-person schooling as safe enough to continue, others — like Lopez — spoke to anxiety and lingering risks.

At a virtual press conference Wednesday, Estephany Almanzar, of Boston, said she tried to protect the health of her infant daughter by occasionally keeping her older sister out of the Blackstone School in the South End.

“She was always telling me, ‘Mom, the children are sick in school. They're coughing so much,’ ” Almanzar said through a Spanish-language interpreter.

After a warning about the truancy law, Almanzar said she relented — only for her and her daughters to develop COVID cases serious enough to land them in an emergency room.

The press conference was hosted by the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, an advocacy group that has tangled with Baker since before the pandemic began.

“This administration has been reactive, never taking the leadership that is needed and passing the buck onto our communities and — worse — to our overwhelmed families,” said Cara Berg Powers, the group’s interim director, at the event.

While Powers welcomed the distribution of tests to families, she said the state should extend its generosity to include more in-school vaccination clinics and supplies of high-quality masks — especially in districts or communities where vaccination rates remain persistently below the state average.

It remains to be seen how many districts will opt to end "test and stay" and contact tracing in favor of the rapid at-home tests; the shift will begin on an opt-in basis, though the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education "strongly encourages" the move.

This segment aired on January 20, 2022.

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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