Gov. Charlie Baker and Massachusetts education officials announced updated school COVID-19 testing options Tuesday, including providing participating students and staff with at-home rapid tests weekly to help keep in-person learning going.
Beginning this week, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Public Health said schools will be able to sign up to receive at-home rapid antigen tests for weekly use by participating students and staff. These schools will discontinue contact tracing and so-called "Test and Stay" program to allow school health staff to spend more time identifying symptomatic individuals and focusing on other aspects of COVID management.
"The best place for kids is in school, and we want to do everything we can to keep the kids in school, but also keep them as safe as possible," DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said Tuesday.
In order to take part, the state said schools must continue to participate in symptomatic and/or pooled testing.
Schools will be able to start opting in to the program this week for staff and will receive tests next week. Schools will receive tests for students whose families opt in during the week of Jan. 31.
"The current state of the pandemic requires that we adapt our tactics to meet the times. This new testing program is just the latest way we think we can help keep kids in school," Baker said Tuesday, while also reminding everyone that getting vaccinated "is the best thing you can do to protect yourself, our educators and our kids."
The at-home tests will be shipped directly to school districts for distribution and are packaged in kits containing two tests apiece. Students and staff who participate will receive one kit every two weeks to test themselves. Families will need to inform their school if they want at-home rapid antigen tests sent home with students.
Anyone who tests positive at home will be asked to inform their school of the result. Schools will report positive cases to DESE as part of their regular, weekly COVID reporting.
The administration said the tests will come from the supply of 26 million at-home rapid antigen tests Baker announced last week had been ordered from iHealth to be delivered over the next three months.
Tuesday's update came after Baker had lawmakers last week that he would have an improved plan for testing students prior to February break.
COVID-19 cases among Massachusetts students have been spiking in recent weeks. More than 41,000 students tested positive last week, as well as 7,351 staff members.
But school officials released updated data Tuesday on the pooled testing and Test and Stay programs showing very few positive cases and low transmission rates. As of last week, they said about 99% of the more than 500,000 Test and Stay tests conducted in schools came back negative.
"Clearly, in-school spread is extremely rare and as we all know, young people are at a much lower risk for getting COVID," Baker said Tuesday. "In fact, they are the lowest risk population of all."
“Massachusetts’ first and most comprehensive in the nation school testing program has reinforced the fact that our schools remain safe places for students, teachers and faculty,” Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said. “The Test and Stay program data revealed extremely low rates of secondary transmission, which shows that close contacts very rarely test positive.”
Meanwhile, scores of Boston Public School students walked out Friday in a call for a temporary return to remote learning and more safety protocols because of COVID safety concerns.
The protest was organized by a group called the Boston Student Advisory Council.
The group demanded that the district go remote for two weeks and that those days be counted towards the state's mandate of 180 days of in-person learning, something the governor has resisted.