New MA School Coronavirus Guidance Put To Test In Salem

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SALEM, MA — As a Salem State professor, Salem School Committee member and mother of two children in Salem Public Schools, it could be difficult to find anyone on the North Shore more invested in school coronavirus testing and mitigation protocols than Dr. Kristin Pangallo.

Yet, three days after the state rolled out its new guidance for school virus testing that involves sending home rapid tests weekly in place of school contact tracing and the current “test-to-stay” in-school testing program, Pangallo is torn on whether the district should opt in to the new model.

"It's kind of complex, honestly," Pangallo told Patch Friday afternoon. "We've been talking a lot about it and trying to figure out if it's a good fit for us. I don't think we've come to a conclusion."

Pangallo said the benefits of the revised guidance — which the state is recommending, but keeping optional, at least for now — is that it will get more rapid tests in more homes quickly and consistently. But she said she worries about other aspects of the program that could have unintended consequences when it comes to equity and, to a lesser extent, the loss of testing oversight that schools have maintained since returning to the classrooms a year ago.

"We should be flooding tests for everybody and getting them in the hands of families is the right thing to do because they can test at home and never even come to school if they are positive," she said. "(Along with school pool testing) this will also give people a chance to test twice a week, which is actually much better than once a week (in current surveillance testing)."

(Also On Patch: New MA COVID Guidance May Force Schools Into Tough Testing Call)

Pangallo, however, said one problem for Salem schools "in addition to losing some degree of control" is the new round of consent the state is requiring to enroll families in the program so they will be eligible for the take-home tests. Salem is up to 71 percent of students enrolled in the current pool and test-to-stay programs, but that took four months of a persistent enrollment drive.

Under the new DESE guidelines, all families must re-enroll for the new program — which essentially forces the district to go back and start from zero.

"That is not a small ask," she said. "That is a very substantial request."

She said her concern is that the first families to sign up for the new program will be the same ones who were most likely the first to get vaccinations when eligible and may have access to at-home tests already. The populations that were harder to reach in the current testing and vaccination pushes may be the ones who get left out when the tests begin to ship out as early as Jan. 31.

"What we really want to do is make sure that all of our families have access," she said. "This is going to result in inequitable results. That's a real issue."

She said she is actually less concerned that the new system will replace the in-school daily testing for close contacts of positive cases with more of an honor system that assumes families are being diligent about using the at-home tests and reporting any positive results.

"That's true of a lot of things, and to some extent, you can't control that,” she said of the voluntary compliance. "Our goal is to give families all the tools they need to make the best decisions they can. We expect people would like to get their hands on these tests."

She noted the superintendent's office will ultimately make the call whether the district opts in to the new state program.

Pangallo has been active both in the schools and using her social media to promote best testing and mitigation practices. On Friday, she authored a lengthy Twitter thread about the district's test-to-return policy that requires students recovering from the coronavirus to test negative to return to the classrooms before a full 10-day quarantine — which goes above and beyond current state and CDC guidelines.

Making her recent experiences even more personal is that her daughter, who is vaccinated, recently tested positive for the virus and still tested as positive on a rapid test — which measures potential infectiousness — six days later when, theoretically, she could have returned to school if symptom-free.

"You can do everything in your power to avoid it and you can still get it," Pangallo said. "It's not a moral failing. After two years of having this thing that you were trying to avoid, to get it can be tough on kids.

"But we had conversations about how because you got the vaccine, you might still get it, and maybe you're going to get sick, but it's OK."

Pangallo said the district's biggest push remains to get more families to get their students vaccinated — noting more than nine million children ages 5 to 11 are now vaccinated across the country with very few negative side effects reported.

(Scott Souza is a Patch field editor covering Beverly, Danvers, Marblehead, Peabody, Salem and Swampscott. He can be reached at Twitter: @Scott_Souza.)

This article originally appeared on the Salem Patch

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