MELROSE, MA — The state's recent announcement of a COVID-19 pool testing program comes not a moment too soon for Melrose Public Schools, which still remains in the midst of a staredown with the teachers' union.
Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday said Massachusetts will provide pool testing for all schools in support of the state's long-held stance that more children need to be learning in class. The state will pay for the first six or so weeks of the program.
The relief from school districts across the state was almost palpable — and no exhales were bigger than the ones in Melrose.
Superintendent Julie Kukenberger was under pressure from the teachers' union and School Committee to come up with a testing solution beyond the four-day program that accompanied last week's remote learning.
The union said last week it didn't want to return to class until the city had "ongoing, regular testing." The School Committee narrowly approved the four-day testing with the expectation that Kukenberger return with plans for more testing.
While school officials across the state were hoping for the Baker administration to provide help, there was no guarantee on when it might come or what it might look like. Not even Kukenberger, who had been preparing testing options for Tuesday night's School Committee meeting, knew the announcement was coming Friday.
"It's certainly exciting to know that the state is stepping up and offering this to public schools in Massachusetts," she told Patch shortly after the news broke. "It's great timing and welcome news."
But while Kukenberger, School Committee Chair Ed O'Connell and Mayor Paul Brodeur all told Patch they welcome the state's pool testing, it's unclear if it will satisfy the union's desires. A request for comment Friday from the Melrose Education Association went unanswered.
Another potential roadblock in a school year full of them could be the timing of the testing. Even if the teachers are satisfied with the pool testing, it could be weeks before it rolls out. The question then would be how the district and teachers bridge that gap; In-class learning is scheduled to resume Monday.
Still, the state testing provides much-needed — and many say long-overdue — resources.
"What we've received up to this point has been various guidance and memos, but other than that a whole lot of hectoring, quite frankly, that we should be doing what's necessary to get kids back in school," O'Connell said. "This proposed pool testing is finally giving us a tool and resources to really make that happen.
"And what we saw in Melrose last week was a case in point," he said. "Left to our own devices we had this very contentious proposal to do this on our own."
The first two days of testing in-person students and staff last week yielded seven positive results — three students, four adults — out of 1,123 tests. Results of the final two days of testing were not available as of Sunday evening.