Massachusetts schools are poised to gain a new tool to help keep students and staff in classrooms even when they might have had possible exposure to COVID-19.
Baker administration education officials plan to allow use of a "test and stay" protocol, already deployed in at least one other state, in which asymptomatic individuals who have had close contact with a confirmed infection can take rapid tests daily to monitor for COVID-19 rather than quarantine.
Students or staff under the test-and-stay system will take the Abbott BinaxNOW rapid test, which provides results in about 15 minutes, every day for at least five days while remaining in school, according to a summary the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education included in guidance it sent superintendents on July 30.
Districts participating in the statewide school testing program or using "other approved diagnostic tests" will be able to offer test-and-stay, DESE said. Vaccinated students and school personnel are exempt from any quarantine requirements otherwise.
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The department plans to provide updated guidance to schools in the near future outlining how to respond to a variety of pandemic-related situations.
Asked about the test-and-stay program, a DESE spokesperson said Tuesday that the department is "finalizing COVID-19 protocols for school districts that will be released before school starts" and pointed to the preliminary outline in the July 30 guidance.
The policy could have a major impact on elementary and middle schools in particular because children younger than 12 remain ineligible for any of the approved COVID-19 vaccines, a key factor in DESE's strong recommendation that students in kindergarten through sixth grade continue to wear masks indoors in the upcoming school year.
Last fall, Utah's Department of Health deployed a test-to-stay system in an effort to prevent students who might have been exposed to COVID-19 but remained asymptomatic from shifting to remote learning.
Those who tested positive were required to isolate for 10 days, those who tested negative could continue to participate in class and activities inside school buildings, and those who opted out of the test-to-stay program shifted to remote learning for 10 days after close contact.
Thirteen high schools implemented the practice, and researchers concluded in May 2021 that it saved "an estimated 109,752 in-person instruction student-days."
Utah also rolled out a "test to play" protocol requiring students to test every 14 days if they wanted to participate in extracurricular activities, which was widely embraced in two-thirds of the state's public high schools and helped keep 95 percent of athletic events on track, according to the research team.
"For most students, being able to attend school in-person and participate in extracurricular activities is best for their learning as well as their social and emotional well-being," University of Utah Health pediatrics professor Adam Hersh said in a statement published by the school. "When combined with other prevention strategies, most importantly masking, these testing strategies helped keep our schools safe and open."
Bay State educators are still waiting for the final guidance from DESE, but the initial preview of the system drew a positive review from Salem Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Zrike, who described it as "exciting" in a presentation to his city's School Committee.
"This is an important step to reduce the disruption if there are positive cases this fall," Zrike wrote.
Massachusetts schools have had access to BinaxNOW rapid tests since December, when they started deploying the tests for students and staff showing symptoms of COVID-19.
The state also deployed a pooled testing system in January that, like BinaxNOW tests, will remain available at no cost to districts in the upcoming year. In pooled testing, multiple test swabs are combined into a single batch. If any batch returns a positive result, every person whose sample went into that batch gets re-tested.
When officials unveiled the system in January, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said the pool model costs "at least 75 percent less than the cost of an individual test."