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Local school districts to join state’s rapid COVID-19 testing initiative

Staff Writer
Published: 11/27/2020 4:40:35 PM

Several Franklin County school districts have been chosen to participate in the state’s pilot rapid COVID-19 testing program.

The Greenfield School Department, Frontier Regional and Union 38 school districts, Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont regional school districts, and Gill-Montague Regional School District are among the 134 public school districts and charter schools chosen for the first round of distribution of Abbott BinaxNOW tests — a COVID-19 test that will allow schools to test symptomatic students and staff with results within 15 minutes.

“This is a voluntary initiative, with test kits provided to schools at no cost and designed to help schools continue to provide in-person instruction,” said Jeffrey Riley, commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education during a recent press conference.

Results are “probable” and not considered diagnostic, he clarified. Confirmation requires a PCR test.

“By testing students and teachers and getting results in minutes, we will be able to identify infected individuals and their close contacts more quickly and to help stop any spread,” Riley said. “It is becoming increasingly clear this virus is going to be with us for a while.”

According to Riley, schools with in-person learning were prioritized. That includes full in-person and hybrid learning models, as well as districts offering in-person services for high-needs students.

Meg Burch, nurse manager for the Frontier and Union 38 regional school districts, said the nursing team planned to begin working after the holiday weekend on the development of district guidelines and procedures.

She said that tests will be offered to students or staff who develop symptoms of illness during the school day. Regardless of the results of the test, the individual would be sent home and referred for follow-up with their primary care physician.

“The PCR is really the gold standard,” Burch said. “Anybody who has one of these antigen tests we would be doing at school would have to have their results confirmed by a PCR.”

She clarified that the program doesn’t establish a “COVID testing site,” but rather gives schools the necessary tools to test staff or students as needed during the school day.

“I liken it to more of a screening tool,” Burch said. “If we get a positive, then we’re going to be fairly confident that person is in fact positive, and it will allow us to respond much more quickly in terms of communicating with people who might be close contacts, if any.”

Burch said she doesn’t know exactly when the program will be implemented at schools across the Frontier and Union 38 regional school districts, as there are still details to be worked out — such as where the laboratory area will be set up, and where and how kits will be stored — and training sessions that need to be completed.

“It’s a hard time to get something off the ground and running, and I don’t want to rush it,” she said. “I want to make sure all of our safety protocols are in place before we actually start the program.”

A meeting is scheduled for Dec. 4 for participating districts to learn more about the program, she said.

“Because we don’t really know how many people we would be testing, one of the questions I have for Friday is, ‘What would be the turnaround time to restock as needed?’” she said. “My feeling would be that I would want to be modest in what we started with until we had a sense of our usage.”

Burch said there have been a few cases where students or staff members have become symptomatic while at school, but in large part, people have done “remarkably well” at staying home when they’re not feeling well.

“People are generally very careful and considerate, and responsive of the basic safety protocols,” she said. “Not just the school community, but the community as a whole.”

Burch said she thinks the ability to offer students and staff rapid tests during the day will help eliminate some of the “uncertainty time” that comes with waiting for test results on a person who has become symptomatic that you’ve been in contact with.

“To be able to say, ‘This person is positive and we’ve already identified the close contacts, so they can start their follow-up with their PCP,’ to be able to do that in real time, versus sometimes two or three days later, I think there is benefit in that,” she said.

The idea, she said, is to be able to respond faster to a potential positive case.

“I do imagine that staff and families will have questions, and that’s part of what we need to,” Burch explained. “Part of our planning is we need to make sure we have everything we can anticipate to be thought through and addressed.”

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


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