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New State Program Will Let School Districts Distribute At-Home COVID-19 Tests
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
01:00PM / Tuesday, January 18, 2022
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BOSTON – Massachusetts schools will have the option to distribute weekly at-home tests to students and staff this month under a new testing program announced by the Baker administration on Tuesday morning.
The at-home testing program is designed to replace the commonwealth's "test and stay" program, which was created to allow in-school testing of asymptomatic close contacts of people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley called at-home testing a "game changer" for Massachusetts schools.
Baker said schools will continue to have the option to continue with a test-and-stay program already in place or adopt the new at-home testing. Riley said the latter will allow school health staff to focus on symptomatic people rather than conduct contact tracing whenever there is a positive test in a school building.
"Massachusetts was one of the first states to launch test and stay, and the CDC, so many months after our adoption, recently jumped on board as well," Riley said. "But it is now time for us to lead again and adopt strategies to adapt to the current conditions of this pandemic.
"We need to pivot from strategies that worked in the fall to policies that are more aligned with how things have changed."
Riley said the state has committed to purchasing 26 million rapid tests for the new program.
If districts opt in to the at-home testing program, families will be asked to also agree to a weekly testing regimen. Then schools will distribute a packet of two test kits every two weeks, Riley said.
Families will be given instructions on how to conduct tests and asked to report any positive results to the school district immediately and keep their child home, Riley said. As for timing, he said school districts may recommend what day of the week to conduct in-home tests depending on when students participate in pool testing at school.
"Let's say they do [pool testing] on Thursday," he said. "They may want the kids to do it [at home] on Sunday to spread it out."
Pool testing and the test and stay program have been key strategies to keep kids in school, Baker said. They also have demonstrated that in-school transmission of COVID-19 has been rare.
The test and stay program has allowed close contacts of people who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus to remain in school while undergoing daily rapid tests for five consecutive days after their exposure.
To date, the state has conducted 503,32 rapid tests under test and stay, and 496,440, or 99 percent, have been negative, Baker said.
"This confirms that in-school transmission is extremely rare – far more rare than outside of school," Baker said.
Riley said the at-home testing program grew out of conversations with school districts and emphasized that it will be up to individual districts to adopt the strategy, which the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is recommending.
While joining Baker in applauding the work of school nurses, who Riley called "the true heroes among us today," the commissioner indicated that strains in the education system related to the test and stay program are a factor in creating the new program.
"We certainly, like every sector in the country, have staffing issues," Riley said. "I think the nurses have gone above and beyond what anyone could ask of them.
"But this is something that is just better for our kids and gives more coverage. At the same time, it provides [nurses] more relief, so they can focus on symptomatic cases."
Riley pointed out that the test and stay program was created at a time when the majority of the school-aged population was not eligible to be vaccination against COVID-19. Today, all school-aged children are eligible. And Baker took advantage of Tuesday's platform to make yet another plea from the administration to get vaccinated.
"While testing is an important tool, I would like to remind everyone, once again, that getting vaccinated is the best thing you can do to protect yourself, our educators and our kids," Baker said. "If you haven't been vaccinated or boosted, please make an appointment.
"The Department of Public Health will continue to support vaccine clinics for students and staff. So far, they have done over 915 [school-based] clinics across 170 communities. We will go to any school at any time that wants to run one of these clinics – any school at any time."
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