Massachusetts health and education officials on Tuesday revealed plans to move away from the state’s Test and Stay program, a critical infection mitigation tool designed to keep public school students in kindergarten to grade 12 in the classroom after being exposed to COVID-19.
By the end of the month, asymptomatic students who are considered close contacts may no longer need to undergo daily COVID tests for at least five days, Gov. Charlie Baker said at a Tuesday morning press briefing. .
Still, that hinges on whether school districts opt in to a new alternative testing program unveiled by the Baker administration on Tuesday that would distribute rapid home tests to students every two weeks.
The evolving policy comes as Massachusetts secured 26 million rapid tests for schools and daycares last week, with deliveries expected over the next three months. Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said on Tuesday that the home-testing option would run through at least the April vacation, but a longer-term decision will be announced later.” depending on the situation on the ground.
Health data no longer justifies the need for schools to rely on the burdensome Test and Stay option, Riley said.
Rapid tests provide a new layer of protection that will increase ongoing cluster or symptomatic COVID in schools, Baker said Tuesday. Test and Stay has been “massively successful in avoiding days lost at home” due to quarantine, Baker said – but it took “significant resources” for school staff and nurses to search for the contacts.
“The current state of the pandemic requires that we adapt our efforts to meet the times,” Baker said, referring to data that points to low transmission of the virus in schools. Of more than 503,000 COVID tests administered through the Test and Stay program, 99% returned a negative result, the governor said.
“Obviously, school spread is extremely rare,” said Baker, who did not mention that more than 40,000 students tested positive for COVID from Jan. 6 to Jan. 12, based on the latest report. of the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “And as we all know, young people are at a much lower risk of getting sick from COVID. In fact, they are the lowest risk population of all.
Students who test positive should report their positive antigen result to their school and health care provider, Riley said.
School districts are strongly recommended to discontinue Test and Stay and enroll in rapid home tests, Riley said. In participating school districts, parents will also be required to sign permission slips, allowing their children to receive the at-home rapid test kits beginning the week of Jan. 31, Riley said.
It’s too early to know how many districts can sign up to receive the rapid tests — and how many can stick to Test and Stay, despite state officials urging them to adapt their pandemic strategy.
Riley said Test and Stay was developed to maintain in-person learning for unvaccinated students. But now all students are eligible to get vaccinated — and nurses no longer need to put in “countless hours, days and nights” to keep the Test and Stay program up and running, Riley said.
“Also, no one had access to the rapid antigen tests that we will be sending out shortly, and that changes the math,” Riley said of the changing landscape of the pandemic and COVID testing. “We now have an opportunity that was not available to us before. This new testing option will allow healthcare personnel to focus directly on symptomatic individuals, rather than identifying asymptomatic close contacts.
School districts can maximize their testing coverage by using both cluster testing and rapid home testing, Riley said. For example, a district may decide to administer group testing on Mondays and then require rapid home testing on Wednesdays or Thursdays.
This testing should take place regardless of COVID symptoms, Riley said.
“It’s something that’s just better for our kids,” Riley said. “The reality is that we know the best place for children is at school. And we want to do everything we can to make sure children can stay in school, but also to keep them as safe as possible. .