Following delay, pooled testing launches at Franklin County schools

  • Supplies used for pooled testing in the Frontier Regional and Union 38 school districts. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/MEG BURCH

Staff Writer
Published: 10/1/2021 5:07:11 PM

Schools around Franklin County are beginning to launch this year’s pooled testing program following weeks-long delays caused by staffing issues on the state level.

Pooled testing, a state-funded program that first launched in February, provides COVID-19 testing resources at no cost to participating districts throughout Massachusetts. But due to staffing issues at the state level, local officials have said, the start of the program was delayed while individual districts scrambled to find their own staffing.

“The biggest frustration (with the delay) is we know it works,” said Greenfield School Committee Chair Amy Proietti. “We know it’s our frontline tool that can quickly identify (cases), and really — out of the three testing procedures — this is the one we want to rely on the most, because it will catch those community spread cases.”

Pooled testing involves testing groups of students as part of one “test pool” or test batch. If a particular test pool comes back with a positive result, each individual in that pool is tested to identify the positive case.

Other methods of testing available at most schools in the county include rapid testing, which is used as needed for students who demonstrate symptoms; and a “test and stay” protocol, which is used for students who are identified as close contacts with a positive COVID-19 case but who do not show symptoms.

In recent weeks, several districts, including the Greenfield School Department, Mohawk Trail Regional School District, and Frontier Regional and Union 38 school districts have mandated pooled testing for student athletes. In some districts, participating in pooled testing is also a requirement of students participating in extra-curricular programs.

For non-athletes, pooled testing is not mandatory and parents are asked to opt-in their students.

Proietti said Greenfield schools expected the program — which officially started this week — to be in place by the first week of school, but due to staffing issues at the state level, the district has had to identify employees to carry out the program.

“What we are doing is identifying folks to see if we can fit this into their current role,” she said. “We’re trying not to do too much hiring, but to get the program in place with folks we already have working in the district.”

Meg Burch, nurse manager for the Frontier Regional and Union 38 school districts, said it took “all hands on deck” to get the pooled testing program up and running last month in the two districts.

“We were promised staff and found out the day before our first day of testing, we had no agency staff to help us,” she said.

Burch said she expected to begin the program for the first day of school, but was delayed by a week while in-house staffing was coordinated.

“Like a lot of schools, we had thought we would be up and running sooner,” she said.

Burch said that during a state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) webinar with CIC Health on Friday morning, the company providing the testing kits, school nurses from across Western Massachusetts were told that more schools were participating than was expected.

“I think CIC Health is certainly hearing our concerns and frustrations, and I think DESE is hearing concerns and frustrations, but there is a fundamental level where they don’t understand what happens in a school health office,” she said.

Burch said she credits the nurses with the Frontier Regional and Union 38 school districts for taking on the program in addition to their typical daily work. She also acknowledged that while it was possible for Frontier and Union 38 to start the program with the help of school nurses, it wasn’t a decision all schools could make.

“We’re up and running due to the commitment of the building-based nurses,” she said. “It has not been easy on them.”

When testing kits arrived at Franklin County Technical School in Turners Falls late last week, school nurses were ready to launch the program, according to Superintendent Rick Martin. Pooled testing officially began for students and faculty on Thursday.

“We would have liked to have the kits to start the year off,” he said. “Without having the pooled testing, it does raise a little bit of anxiety for kids and family and staff not knowing.”

When testing kits did arrive, school nurses were prepared.

“It was a quick turnaround, and that’s a credit to our nurses,” he said.

School nurse Kellie Grybko said the impact of the delay is hard to tell.

“Kids at this age, they don’t present symptoms, a lot of them,” she said. “Their immune systems are good. They show no symptoms, which is why testing is so important.”

At the Mohawk Trail Regional School District — where pooled testing is new this year — Superintendent Sheryl Stanton said the district is now working to ensure the personnel are in place when the program is scheduled to start in the district next Thursday.

Stanton said that “right out of the gate,” she had heard the program was likely over-enrolled, so the district planned for a start in late September or early October.

“We’ve been working to make sure we have personnel,” Stanton said. “We’re adding a school nurse to our health team, so we have people to manage the continued COVID responses that we have to have.”

The district participated in the BinaxNOW rapid testing program for symptomatic students last year.

“We felt like we had gained the experience,” she said. “We also felt that with the delta variant, being able to test asymptomatic and catch COVID prior to symptoms was an important layer of mitigation we could add.”

Proietti noted that although the delay has been frustrating to school officials in Greenfield, the district has managed to control potential spread using its in-place COVID-19-related protocols.

“We’re super, super proud of how well our communities in the school have followed protocols,” she said. “We’ve had cases each week of people in the schools, but it’s in the single digits, and it’s traced back to something that happened outside of school.”

Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne




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