Manchester schools approve two-week COVID-19 testing pilot program

Paul Feely, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
·3 min read

Mar. 10—As officials prepare to administer the first doses of COVID-19 vaccinations to Manchester school teachers this weekend, the district is preparing to launch a new voluntary testing program aimed at identifying asymptomatic cases among staff.

Manchester school board members voted this week to approve a two-week voluntary pilot testing program using self-swab kits from UNH Manchester.

Any teachers and staff who test positive will be given a PCR test.

"The whole process is fast, very economical and has proved to be essential to our ability to operate a university," said Michael Decelle, dean of UNH Manchester.

Decelle said the testing program will operate similar to one in place at UNH since late July.

Twice a week, on assigned days, UNH students will swab then place the swabs in a zipped-up bag in one of a number of drop boxes around campus. The bags are collected every two hours.

The kits are processed at a UNH lab and results are transmitted to students' phones within 48 hours. A negative test result allows for access to a building or class.

"We have built out some of our capacity to allow opening the testing platform we developed to critical community partners, of which the Manchester school district is certainly one," Decelle said. "It is not a substitute for a vaccine, not a substitute for closing safe distances. It is a way to perhaps provide an extra layer of protection, and perhaps to provide a safe bridge to your faculty, staff and students to getting fully vaccinated and the vaccine becoming fully effective."

Only staff — not students — would be tested in the Manchester school district, officials said. Participation in the program is voluntary.

Regular testing allows university health officials to catch cases before they can spread. Positive cases can be quickly isolated or quarantined. One goal of the pilot program in Manchester is to identify asymptomatic staff in the district.

"A key to being able to continue to operate as a residential campus was going to be our ability to detect asymptomatic spread before any kind of spread could occur," Decelle told school board members this week. "We have been able to stay open because we found clusters before they got out of control."

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Jenn Gillis said if every staff member participates, the cost of running the two-week program comes in around $125,000, about $31 per test. Costs will be covered using CARES funds, Gillis said.

In two weeks, Gillis said she expects to come back and give the board an idea how many staff took advantage of the opportunity, with the board determining if the district should consider moving forward with additional weeks of testing.

"Not every district within the state has this opportunity, but Manchester does," Mayor Joyce Craig said. "I view this as another layer that is providing protection for those who want to take it. The benefit here is it will identify asymptomatic COVID positives, and that's that level of safety that we don't have right now."

The board voted 11-1 to approve the pilot testing program, with only Nicole Leapley opposed. Board members Art Beaudry, Kelly Thomas and Joe Lachance were absent for the vote.