With the Natick High School boys basketball team on a two-week pause due to its recent close contact with infected team members of the Needham High hoops team, and a high number of individuals in town passing through multiple pod groups (the cousin group! The team group!), community spread in Natick keeps on spreading.
“Life outside of school impacts life inside of school,” Superintendent Anna Nolin noted during the Jan. 26th School Committee meeting, held via Zoom.
Nolin during the meeting asked the SC to research and consider the idea of entering into a free 6-week pool-testing program offered by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education (DESE). What’s pool testing? Hint: it’s got nothing to do with the chlorine levels at Longfellow.
Pooled testing from a public health perspective means combining approximately 10 – 25 respiratory swab samples into a batch (or “pool”) and then conducting a single laboratory test on the combined pool of samples to detect COVID cases.
According to the CDC, pooling is useful in scenarios such as returning teachers and students to school because it allows labs to test more samples with fewer testing materials. If a pooled test result comes back negative, then all the samples can be presumed negative with the single test, and the individuals tested as part of that pool may stay in school. If the pooled test result comes back positive, then each of the individuals in the pool who provided a sample will need to be tested individually to determine which samples are positive.
If Natick goes with the DESE program, swab testing would be performed once per week. Test results would come back in 24 – 48 hours.
Although the 6-week swab-testing program is free, ancillary costs are not.
One issue is staffing. As things stand right now, Natick’s nursing staff is flat-out with contact tracing and its accompanying paperwork, and has no time to do the hands-on nursing work of administering the swab tests. SC member Julie McDonough said, “I think we have to make some changes in what our nurses are doing and where they’re spending their time.”
In addition, families must be convinced that pool testing is a good idea. Significant buy-in is essential or the program won’t work. That means families must be educated about the advantages of this kind of testing; waivers must be signed; and students must be made available to take the tests. In addition, it is likely that many community volunteers would be needed, adding another logistical layer of training.
Part of the argument for joining in with the pool-testing program is that it may accelerate a return to full-time in-person school.
Although a step toward a return to school will likely to be achieved as soon as teachers are vaccinated, Nolin emphasized that vaccinated teachers does not mean that students or families are vaccinated. Therefore, safety measures such as a continuation of mask-wearing and maintaining social distancing of 6-feet would need to continue, along with a hybrid model of learning, for the foreseeable future. If a 6-feet distance needs to be maintained, then the schools cannot put full-time, in-person learning back into place due to space constraints.
Once the general population is vaccinated it is possible that herd immunity would allow a return to regular school in fall. Pool testing, and the data it would generate, could help accelerate this process.