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Schools begin free, weekly COVID-19 screening tests

Temperatures hovered right around freezing shortly before 8 a.m. Tuesday as teams of school staff and parent volunteers directed the first cars carrying kindergartners toward the front of the Bromfield School, where each child received a nasal-swab screening test for COVID-19. Most of the two dozen people directing traffic or running the check-in point and the four testing stations had been outside the school for at least an hour already, setting up for the daylong process.

By day’s end at 5 p.m., the crews had tested 713 students, faculty, and staff—more than 70% of those who were eligible. As staff and volunteers packed up to head home, School Superintendent Linda Dwight, who had been present all day, congratulated Colleen Nigzus, the school’s head nurse, who had been working there since 6:30 a.m. “Colleen is the hero,” Dwight said, and a dozen co-workers nearby broke into applause.

Nurse Kellie Fitzgerald administers a COVID-19 test to a Hildreth Elementary School student Tuesday, Jan. 5. (Photo by Tim Clark)

This is the first week of a COVID-19 testing program that is free to participants and is being supported mainly by donations. The School Committee unanimously approved the voluntary testing program Dec. 28 at its last meeting of 2020. The screening tests were open to all students who are attending school in person, as well as faculty and staff. 

The screening program is expected to cost about $8,000 per week, depending on how many people choose to take part in it. The School Committee agreed to spend up to $11,000 from the Devens fund if needed for the screening tests and to accept two grants of $2,500 each, one from the Harvard Teachers Association and the other from the Parent Teacher Organization. Individual donations have also been coming in to continue the screening tests through the rest of the school year. As of Tuesday, organizers had a total of $38,000 available—enough funds for about five weeks.

From morning till dark

Students who arrived for Tuesday’s screening were met by familiar faces, even though all those faces were masked. Principals Scott Hoffman and Josh Myler helped staff one testing station. Associate Principal Dori Polizzi collected samples at another table. Several teachers wrote their names in marker on their protective gowns: “Mrs. T,” “Ms. Liz,” and many more.

Children who came by bus got off and took the brief test outdoors at a tent shelter. They then reboarded the bus to return home. Students who regularly walk to school were tested at the same station as the bus riders.

Most students arrived for the tests by car, lining up from the Pond Road entrance along the driveway behind the school. Two staff members, Gayle Bruning and Mandy Ostaszewski, checked in each carload to be sure everyone had a signed permission slip. Then the cars proceeded to the three testing stations in front of Bromfield. 

Testing began first for children in grades PK-2 and their siblings at 8 a.m., with time blocks designated for grades 3-4, 5, 6-7, 8-10 and 11-12 (and siblings with each group) until 5 p.m. Allowing siblings to be tested together saved parents from having to make repeated trips to the site.

As each car pulled up to a testing station, the children inside were told to blow their noses. Next, a nurse or a trained staff member reached inside the car and gently swabbed a child’s nostrils with something that resembled a Q-tip and then popped that swab into a numbered vial with up to nine other swabs. The forms that identified whose samples were in each vial were stapled together. Any tests that are positive for the virus will be reported to the school nurses by email, and the 10 people whose samples were in that group will then be tested individually.

When the day’s testing was complete, parent volunteer Liz Ruark, one of the leading advocates for the screening program, drove the dozens of vials into Cambridge and turned them over to CIC Health for processing. CIC Health, the organization with which the schools have contracted, is a subdivision of the Cambridge Innovation Center. CIC works in conjunction with MIT’s Broad Institute, which handles COVID-19 testing for many colleges and universities nationwide, as well as public schools in Watertown and Wellesley. The Broad Institute provides results for COVID-19 tests in 24 hours or less, so Ruark said she expected results by Wednesday evening.

The logistics for Tuesday’s tests were especially complex because all students and faculty who come to school in person were offered the tests on a single day. For the rest of the school year, testing will take place during the regular school week. The testing program was originally scheduled for Monday but was moved to Tuesday because snow was forecast for Monday morning.

A local group of parents, led by Ruark and Toby Bazarnick, has been urging the Harvard schools to adopt screening tests since last summer. Screening tests are administered at regular intervals to as many members of the school community as possible, not just those who may have been exposed to the virus or show any symptoms. (See “Consider This: Why screen for COVID-19 in the schools?”)

This screening program is not to be confused with the separate state program of Abbot BINAX Now rapid tests already in effect in Harvard schools and other districts. The two tests have different purposes. The state program provides free individual diagnostic tests that school nurses can administer to anyone who already shows symptoms, such as a fever, to see if they have COVID-19 or perhaps just a cold. The purpose of the CIC screening test program, in contrast, is to detect asymptomatic or presymptomatic cases.

Continued testing will depend on donations

Speaking to the School Committee, Bazarnick pointed out that dual-career families face a financial loss if one adult must cut back or quit working because a coronavirus outbreak forces Harvard’s schools to shift to fully remote learning. It makes financial sense, he said, for those who can donate to do so. He also plans to approach area businesses that have done well during the pandemic for donations.

The Harvard Schools Trust has agreed to accept donations for the screening program in a separate fund. “The Harvard Schools Trust will provide the fiscal structure needed to collect and distribute donations for this effort in the short term,” Terry Symula, the trust’s co-president, wrote in an email to the Press. In a phone conversation, Symula said the testing program will provide a safer environment for teachers and may help more children to attend school in person. Donations to the schools trust are tax-deductible. Symula said donors can find the trust’s mailing address on its website, www.harvardschoolstrust.org, or donate online.

Bazarnick, Ruark, and other parents have been searching for a cost-effective way to provide weekly screening tests in schools for several months. The most affordable screening method is pooled testing as was done on Tuesday, in which samples from several people are combined and tested. Only if a pooled sample tests positive for the virus do the members of that pool require individual testing. Reducing the number of individual tests lowers the overall cost. 

When the schools first requested proposals for such testing last fall, the price came back at $30 to $35 for each person tested—well above what testing advocates had expected. But a second request for proposals in late November drew more responses, including the one from CIC that the School Committee approved. CIC will charge $10.50 for testing each person, which is within the range the committee had hoped for and allows the screening program to go forward with donor support.

WBUR reports on Harvard’s screening program

Harvard’s screening tests for COVID-19 drew the attention of WBUR’s CommonHealth news and online reporting. Both a reporter and a photographer from the Boston-based radio station arrived around midday Tuesday to witness the testing procedures and interview participants.

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