SALEM — Hundreds of schools across the state will return from vacation next week using a COVID-19 testing program that was pioneered in the Witch City.
A new state-led, pool-based testing program will begin next week and run through March 28. Pool-based testing provides a method for testing groups of people with the multiple samples all screened together. If the pooled test comes back positive, more tests are conducted to narrow down the positive samples. This system requires fewer tests overall and larger volumes of samples can be processed more quickly at less cost per test.
The program, championed by the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is paid for using federal cash to give schools access to free COVID testing for the rest of the winter. The state points to the Salem Public Schools as a model for how to do this. The district rolled out pooled testing, working with New York-based Mirimus Clinical Labs, in November and December.
"When we found out that Salem was actually still open, still serving kids in-person and they were trying out different pooling technologies...that definitely led the charge," said Ross Wilson, executive director of the Shah Family Foundation, which has partnered with DESE to train communities on pool testing and how to access it. "Many of our resources are from Salem, and Salem really led the way in informing the DESE program."
In the fall, coming off a busy Haunted Happenings season — despite concerted efforts by local officials to discourage tourists from traveling to Salem amid the pandemic — Salem school leaders were looking for cheaper ways to get entire schools tested as they sought to expand in-person learning to more students onward into the winter.
"The mayor identified that there was CARES Act dollars remaining and called upon the schools" to start exploring building-wide testing, said Chelsea Banks, the district's COVID response point-person. "We had known about testing for a long time, but it's expensive and complex to figure out, and the available options have shifted rapidly... In another month, there could be new options."
As the holidays arrived, officials started fearing that families would travel and increase exposure risks. Salem officials spent the week prior to Thanksgiving meeting with different testing vendors, and starting the Friday after Thanksgiving, the city had an early program ready to go for when families returned the following week, according to Banks. The first pool-based tests were carried out a week after Thanksgiving.
Throughout December, the program was developed further and brought to district-wide use the week after the Christmas and New Years' holidays. As school resumed, it did so remotely so pool-based testing could be done at each school building. Schools returned to in-person learning the week after, once the week of testing helped officials sift out positive COVID-19 cases in each school population.
In the weeks that followed, the state started gearing up for its own pool-based program, which is seeing a cost of $3 to $5 per person for tests, according to Wilson.
"We rolled out the program in late January to all districts. We have about 300,000 students signed up," Wilson said, adding that the program is now being used in 200 different districts. "What we're learning is that we're able to isolate those 10 people in (a positive test pool), do immediate follow-up testing, identify the positive person, that person quarantines...and the rest can return to school. There's no longer a need to shut down an entire school."
The Salem schools are again shifting their approach, however, going into next week by moving all students to the state program. The local pool-based program will continue for school staff, as well as City Hall employees and members of the city's police and fire departments, according to Banks.
"The Shah Foundation has put together a lot of resources, and we've been sharing our resources with them as we've gone around," Banks said. "In some ways, we're figuring this out alongside everyone else."
As that relationship continues, all officials are beginning to look to the next school year, according to Wilson.
"Everyone is eyeing the prize of September, how we return as many kids as possible to in-person," he said. "It's important we do this testing immediately for the sake of salvaging the remainder of the year, but most certainly, we can't be in the same situation next year."
For more on pooled testing in Massachusetts, how school districts are getting access to it and Salem's efforts, visit COVIDEdTesting.com.