Natick School Committee meetings are typically all-business affairs, but a little bit of glee crept in when Superintendent Anna Nolin reported the latest on pool testing during the committee’s Feb. 23rd meeting. Not only is it game on with the state program, which Natick will participate in six weeks for free, but Nolin happily let the SC know, “The Department of Education permitted 15 staffers to come to work for us” at no cost to Natick.
That means more highly qualified hands on deck, in addition to the 30 medical professionals in the community who have volunteered their time and skills for the program. Natick applied last month to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education (DESE) to be considered as a pool testing community. 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. Pool testing 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.
Nolin said a concern for families that came up during community forums was that students who were in a positive pool would be removed from school and told to quarantine, even if they were not infected with COVID.
“If your child is in a positive pool, we then execute reflex testing in that group within a 15-minute time period to know who in the pool is infected. There’s no need for anybody to be out of school unless they are confirmed on that reflex test to be positive,” she said.
State staffers came to town and started on-boarding on Feb. 24, and it’s expected that the first session of pool testing will take place on Mar. 1. Those staffers will get the program rolling, while community volunteers will learn by shadowing them. When the six-week part of the program ends, Natick will go forward with volunteers and the district’s own staff.
What about returning to school full-time?
There’s no question that everyone is anxious for students to resume full-time in-person learning. That’s the Holy Grail of public school education right now.
However, Nolin noted that health conditions today are exactly as they were in the fall. “The rates of infection are now mimicking where they were when we went back to school,” she said. In addition, the CDC still recommends 6-feet distancing, so space constraints in the schools haven’t gone away. “Plus, no one is vaccinated,” she said.
Full-time, in-person learning could happen, but not immediately. By April? If teachers get vaccinated? Maybe? Well, let’s just say nobody’s willing to make any promises. Pool testing is expected to help in that kind of decision-making process by providing data-driven baseline information about the current school landscape. From there, that data will be used as a tool to make decisions about what the rest of the school year should look like.
Please support our independent journalism effort