Students, teachers and staff at Massachusetts schools will have access to weekly rapid COVID tests under a new program announced today by the Baker administration designed to keep in-person learning going.
The program will replace Baker’s Test and Stay program, although districts can choose whether or not to participate in either program.
“This new testing program based on conversations with school administrators is just the latest way we can help keep kids in school,” Governor Charlie Baker said. “School spread is extremely rare, and as we all know young people are at a much lower risk of getting sick from COVID, in fact, they are the lowest risk population of all.”
Schools will be able to register for the program this week. Staff will start receiving tests the week of January 24 and students can start the program the week of January 31.
The new program will replace Contact Tracing and the Test and Stay program for enrolling districts, students, and staff, although this program will still be available to districts instead of the rapid test program. This testing program will run alongside the schools’ cluster testing initiatives and will increase testing overall, according to the administration.
Baker recommended Tuesday that districts adopt this new system.
Students who register will receive a box containing two tests every two weeks and will be asked to take one test each week. The program is expected to run during the April school holidays, after which the administration will reassess its success.
Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley expressed confidence in providing rapid tests to fuel that program. Supplies for the new program will come from the deal announced last week for 26 million iHealth test kits, which are expected to arrive in the state over the next three months.
Parents who find positive cases in their children will be asked to report those cases to the child’s school, which will report the case count to the state, keeping the count of COVID cases accurate.
Baker added that, out of approximately 500,000 COVID tests given to close contacts of students during the Test and Stay program, “we basically came back with almost 500,000 negative tests against children who were close contacts of children who were tested positive,” he said. “(That) is a pretty clear indicator that school-to-school transmission just doesn’t happen a lot.”
The pivot was done in part to keep pace with the pandemic and focus on symptomatic cases, Riley said. He noted that at the time the Test and Stay program launched, students were not eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines. Now all school-aged children are eligible. Also at that time, rapid COVID antigen tests were not widely available.
“Now is the time for us to lead again and change our strategy to adapt to the current conditions of this pandemic. We need to move from strategies that worked in the fall to policies that are more aligned with how things have changed,” he said, adding that this new strategy is aimed at “mitigation.”
The administration also acknowledged that the decision was made in part because of pressure on school staff, particularly nurses, to complete the test-and-stay program.
“Providing this option for rapid home testing will allow school nurses to spend more time identifying symptomatic individuals and focus their efforts on other aspects of managing COVID-19 in our schools,” Riley said. He added that he had heard from nurses and districts across the Commonwealth, who had called for changes to existing testing schemes.