Chelsea Schools, Medical Researchers Call for Nation’s First Rapid COVID Testing Program

The top state health director, Marylou Sudders, has been called on by Chelsea Public Schools, five other diverse public school districts and a group of leading health researchers to be designated officially for a pilot COVID-19 fast-testing program they’re calling the ‘Safe Teachers, Safer Students Back to School Testing Collaborative.’

The reason for the program, the collaborative stated, is largely because the traditional flu season is going to overlap with what is believed to be a second wave of COVID-19 infections. The fact that the symptoms for both sicknesses are very similar will make it difficult to figure out who has COVID-19, and who simply has the flu and a common cold.

“Each district in the Commonwealth must have access to testing capacity to identify those who are infected with COVID-19 within 24 hours, such that districts

can isolate individuals and reduce transmission,” read a memo on the program. “Such testing will also facilitate the return to school for those who are not infected, thereby preserving the workforce and reducing unnecessary quarantines. Furthermore, existing safety measures whose implementation is proposed are proving insufficient to reduce fear amongst teachers and parents given that they do not provide actual evidence of the number of asymptomatic COVID-19 cases in our public schools.”

To try out the quick-testing program in the schools, Chelsea, Revere, Somerville, Wellesley, Watertown and Brookline have asked for a pilot program, which would be launched immediately as cohorts of students and staff begin to return to the various schools. They were joined in the call by Dr. Douglas Golenbock, chief of infectious disease at UMass Medical, Dr. Nira Pollock, associate director of infectious disease diagnostic lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Dr. Jesse Boehm, institute scientist at the Broad Institute.

Supt. Almi Abeyta said she was very glad Chelsea was in alignment with the other districts and medical professionals on the testing program.

“I am grateful to be part of the Safer Teachers, Safer Students:  Back-to-School (COVID-19) Collaborative Pilot because as a collaborative we are learning and working with each other to bring our teachers and students back to school through testing,” she said. “With this pilot, it is my hope that when we are able meet physically in-person for school, we can pilot this program with the first phase-in of our hybrid model and bring our most vulnerable students back first.” 

The memo on the stated it would be the first of its kind in the state, and maybe the nation – if accepted by Sudders as a pilot.

“We believe this multi-district pilot is the first of its kind in the public school setting, both in the State of Massachusetts and in the Nation,” read the memo. “If successful, this effort will demonstrate how to reduce fear and anxiety about return-to-school, pave the way toward ensuring that in-person public school K-12 learning can continue as long as possible, and increase safety of both teachers and students. Critically, it will create a generalizable framework that any town in the Commonwealth can follow.”

The districts were chosen by the medical professionals due to their different choices in back-to-school formats, their different geographies, and the different community compositions. Since the pilot launched, the memo indicated 10 other districts have inquired about being involved.

The program would run roughly through Dec. 1, and would include the following types of testing.

•Symptomatic Testing and Contact Tracing: this testing will be covered by insurance.

•Time Zero Benchmark Testing: one-time testing of all staff and students prior to back-to-school.

•Weekly Assurance Testing for Staff: continuous monitoring of staff given their diversity of hometowns.

•Longitudinal Surveillance: weekly monitoring of all individuals in selected schools to provide real time estimation of risk in buildings and provide evidence of whether our safety protocols are working or not.

The collaborative of school districts and medical professionals asked primarily that Secretary Sudders designate the program as a state-supported pilot, and reconfigure existing Stop the Spread test sites in ‘red’ communities to support the schools.

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