Large in school district’s Covid-testing debacle: State’s failed promise and an overburdened lab
A snowstorm that blew into Cambridge early Friday provided more than a school snow day – it provided a respite from the risk of coronavirus transmission after the collapse of an ambitious plan to Covid-test staff and students returning from winter holiday gatherings.
A series of problems over the past week forced rapid changes to the plan developed late last year.
Discussions between interim superintendent Victoria Greer and the Cambridge Public Health Department about reopening schools began before the winter break, when the coronavirus’ highly transmissible omicron variant was already causing a dramatic rise in case counts in the community, Greer said at a School Committee meeting Tuesday.
The state promised rapid tests so students could be checked and allowed to attend school if they tested negative for coronavirus. The rapid tests were expected to be delivered by the state Dec. 31, Greer said, but the state told the district only Dec. 30 that supply chain problems meant it wouldn’t be able to follow through.
Denied the rapid tests, on Dec. 31 district officials decided to close Cambridge Public Schools for the first two days after the official winter break, using the time to test roughly 1,300 staff and as many students as possible before schools reopened. City test center hours were expanded and school-based clinics were announced to be run by CIC Health, a firm contracted by the state to run Covid testing in public schools. Instead of rapid tests, they now relied on PCR tests with an average turnaround time of 24 hours.
Monday: Squalls ahead
“We will be able to test students on Monday, receive results on Tuesday and return to in-person learning on Wednesday with minimal disruptions by reducing unnecessary quarantines later this week and beyond.”
Email from Greer at 10:14 a.m.
There was Covid testing at four schools on Monday administering tests to roughly 3,500 students – more than half of the 6,612 students enrolled, according to district emails. Families were encouraged to test students through city test sites on Sunday and Monday, but it is not clear if these results were shared with the district.
Logistical issues at the school sites included wait times of more than two hours at the Peabody School and the discovery that some students’ testing consent forms had not been entered into electronic system used at the sites. Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said later that she was at the Peabody and saw some families standing in line for hours. “Our kids and parents were literally shivering in the cold with no gloves,” Siddiqui said.
Some students thought they had submitted consent forms but found when reaching the test table that they were not on file – and those students were turned away, School Committee member Ayesha Wilson said this week.
Paper consent forms for some high schoolers from the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School had not been entered into the electronic system, said Lyndsay Pinkus-Brown, the district’s chief strategy officer, adding that staff came up with multiple solutions in real time and said the problem would not repeat.
Tests were administered until late Monday afternoon and arrived for processing at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in the early evening. They were grouped into 362 pools, each with 10 people, the idea being that if a pool tested positive for Covid, students in it would have to be tested individually to identify who was infected.
But tests from Cambridge were competing for attention from the Broad with dozens of other school districts and individuals, CPS officials said in an email.
Tuesday: Rough weather
“Due to high demand there is a backlog at the testing laboratories. While we have learned that yesterday’s testing of approximately 3,500 students at school sites identified many positive pools (or groups), we do not yet have individual results.”
Email from Greer at 10:22 p.m.
Although the Broad had the school district’s PCR tests on Tuesday, that was still too late to process them and identify who was Covid-positive, which would have provided families with results before schools reopened Wednesday. With 157 out of 362 pools testing positive at 10 individuals per pooled test, roughly 1,570 individual follow-up PCR tests had to be run.
The problems were well known by the time of the School Committee meeting held Tuesday evening.
“I want to apologize to each and every individual who was impacted by standing in the long lines outside of our schools,” said Greer at the meeting, adding that the district and its public health department partners were reviewing the decisions and actions that led to the breakdown to ensure mistakes ware not repeated.
Siddiqui also responded. “I do want to say I’m so sorry about the wait times yesterday,” the mayor said. “This really should not have happened.”
Wednesday: Issues snowball
“Individual test results continue to come in on a rolling basis, however, the laboratory is still experiencing significant delays. We are awaiting an update on when we will receive all of the results. We will share that information with you as soon as possible.”
Email attributed to “The CPS Team” at 4:46 p.m.
Schools opened on Wednesday despite the number of outstanding test results that resulted in some students, unaware they were Covid-positive, attending classes.
An email at 4:46 p.m. Wednesday – when students would already have returned to school – asked families to monitor email because some students’ results could arrive “during the overnight hours” and said a districtwide communication would be sent when all positive notifications were complete.
Many students, particularly at the high school, were concerned because although they were notified only of positive test results, the reporting delay meant that students had no way of knowing if they were negative for Covid – or if their test was positive and delayed, School Committee student member Nuriel Vera-DeGraff said.
Student attendance was 73 percent, according to the district.
If school administrators were notified that a student tested positive during the school day, the student was quarantined and caregivers were called to pick up their child immediately.
The district’s Safety, Health & Facilities Working Group met Wednesday to discuss the rollout. Although it is a public meeting, it was not livestreamed, and no videos of the group’s meetings have been posted online since October.
Thursday: Perfect storm
“As of this morning, CPS and the Cambridge Public Health Department know the following: 1) The lab has only provided individual positive results for three students, whose families were notified yesterday, 2) Approximately 125 CRLS students were identified as members of positive pools and notified this morning, and 3) The vast majority of results will not be available due to a variety of factors at the lab.”
Email attributed to “The CPS Team” at 9:14 a.m.
A Thursday morning email outlined a plan to address the challenges, part of it involving a National Guard team deployed to administer rapid tests to CRLS students who were in pooled tests that tested positive for Covid.
This was possible because Gov. Charlie Baker activated up to 200 National Guard members in October to “support Covid-19 testing in K-12 schools throughout the commonwealth.”
After high school tests were complete, Guard members were divided and assigned to the Peabody/Rindge Avenue Upper School and King Open/Cambridge Street Upper School campus to retest students who participated in the positive pooled tests or may have been exposed to people who tested positive. The campuses were chosen because they reportedly had the most students testing positive out of the pooled results.
In another part of the plan, the remaining schools identified as many students as possible who were in a positive pool and continued regular surveillance testing; nurses and aides focused on testing unvaccinated close contacts of the positive-testing students who attended schools on Wednesday – what the state referred to as the “Test and Stay” program.
“The vast majority of results will not be not be available due to a variety of factors at the [Broad Institute]. We are not the only district experiencing this challenge,” the email said, noting that “the lab has taken full responsibility” but providing no specifics about the sources of the delays.
With snow expected as early as 7:30 p.m. Thursday – it didn’t start until much later – the district anticipated closed schools and officials began looking at the next week rather than the next day.
Monday would see the resumption of “our robust testing schedule of weekly testing for all students and staff,” the district said, with hundreds of additional students included thanks to the additional consents collected Monday.
Siddiqui and School Committee vice chair Rachel Weinstein sent an email to the school community outlining next steps.
“This was not the way we wanted to start 2022. We are truly sorry that you have had to bear the brunt of others’ mistakes. From long, freezing lines to get tested Monday to delayed results and difficult decisions about sending your own children to school Wednesday, we hear you and are responding to these challenges,” Siddiqui and Weinstein said. “Cambridge Public Schools and public health staff have been working around the clock, and we appreciate their commitment to our students and families.”
There would be a review of “how plans (and contingency plans) were made and communicated,” Siddiqui and Weinstein wrote. “We are committed to learning from this difficult experience to ensure that families are never put in this position again.”
Friday: Winter Wonderland
Families awoke to 7 inches of snowfall, the first winter storm of the season and the first snow day of the academic year – a de facto day of quarantine for a large part of the community that could help reduce transmission during the unexpected long weekend leading to a return to routine pandemic precautions next week.
Residents play Friday at the new Timothy J. Toomey Jr. Park in East Cambridge in a City of Cambridge video via Twitter.