As state promises free at-home rapid tests, South Shore schools seek more student testing

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This is a developing story.

Local school leaders say they hope a new state-sponsored program offering free at-home COVID test kits for students and staff will push more families to participate in school testing programs.

Massachusetts schools this week will be able to sign up to receive at-home rapid COVID-19 tests for weekly use by students and staff. Those who test negative for the virus at home will not have to participate in contact tracing or the current "test-and-stay" program, which allows close contacts to stay in classrooms as long as they test negative for the virus daily.

Student Emma Low takes part in a pooled COVID-19 testing program at the Nock-Molin Middle School in Newburyport on Feb. 25, 2021.
Student Emma Low takes part in a pooled COVID-19 testing program at the Nock-Molin Middle School in Newburyport on Feb. 25, 2021.

"It would definitely take a big burden off of our nurses going this route. If we do what they're recommending, pool testing and at-home test kits, we'll no longer have to do contact tracing, which takes up a ton of time," Quincy School Superintendent Kevin Mulvey said Tuesday. "It seems like we're transitioning from the pandemic approach to the endemic approach."

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley called the new at-home testing program a "game changer." He said the new program allows schools to pivot strategies away from identifying asymptomatic close contacts to COVID mitigation and symptomatic testing efforts.

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"We've also heard from many nurses and school administrators urging us to make changes to our test-and-stay program and the contact tracing associated with it," Riley said. "And both our medical advisers and the (Department of Public Health) say it's time to pivot."

The tests will be shipped directly to school districts and come from a supply of 26 million rapid tests that Gov. Charlie Baker announced last week his administration had ordered from iHealth.

Hanover substitute teacher Katey Moynahan, who teaches elementary students, gets tested Monday, Sept. 14, 2020.
Hanover substitute teacher Katey Moynahan, who teaches elementary students, gets tested Monday, Sept. 14, 2020.

Students and staff at schools that opt into the program will receive one packet of two COVID tests each week for use on a day designated by local officials. Local districts can start opting into the program for staff this week and will start receiving tests for staff during the week of Jan. 24. Tests for students will be distributed the week of Jan. 31.

Districts will be given the option to participate in the program, and Mulvey said Quincy most likely will.

Duxbury Interim School Superintendent Danielle Klingaman said she doesn't know if the district will opt in. Duxbury does not conduct pooled testing or participate in the test-and-stay program, unlike many other South Shore towns.

Brewster Ambulance licensed practical nurse Tara Mendonca, right, places a bandage on the arm of Peggy Lyons, 5, of Weymouth, center, as she is comforted by her mom, Cindy Lyons, left, during the COVID-19 student vaccination clinic at Weymouth High School on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.
Brewster Ambulance licensed practical nurse Tara Mendonca, right, places a bandage on the arm of Peggy Lyons, 5, of Weymouth, center, as she is comforted by her mom, Cindy Lyons, left, during the COVID-19 student vaccination clinic at Weymouth High School on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.

Quincy officials have promoted testing in schools since the beginning of the pandemic, but Mulvey said only 21% of families have opted in. Only those who agree to participate in pooled testing will be eligible to receive the free kits, which Mulvey said he hopes will drive up the numbers.

"This will be something they can just do at home and self report, and it would be much more user friendly and easy to do," he said. "We're hoping it will increase those numbers. The greater the participation, the better we know where we are with the schools."

Harwich Elementary School nurse Holly Tavano helps her daughter, Linnea, 10, with a coronavirus test Dec. 6.
Harwich Elementary School nurse Holly Tavano helps her daughter, Linnea, 10, with a coronavirus test Dec. 6.

In a news release Monday, the state education department said testing programs have made schools "one of the few types of settings in the state where individuals are tested on a regular basis." Tests conducted through the test-and-stay program for COVID close contacts are negative 90% of the time, the agency said.

During the week of Jan. 6 to Jan. 12, Massachusetts school districts reported 41,063 new COVID-19 cases among students and 7,351 in staff members.

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State House News Service reporters Chris Van Buskirk and Katie Lannan contributed to this report. Reach Mary Whitfill at mwhitfill@patriotledger.com.

This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: 'From pandemic to endemic:' At-home tests mark shift for schools

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