Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A teen at a Cambridge Health Alliance vaccination event. (Photo: Cambridge Health Alliance via Twitter)

The spike in positive Covid cases during the winter break exposed fault lines in how the state, testing companies and school district approached testing staff and students when schools reopened. With a weeklong break coming Feb. 21, the district is applying the lessons it learned. 

The district plans to provide all students and staff with a rapid self-test before the break with instructions to use it Feb 27 – the day before schools reopen, said Victoria Greer on Tuesday. Greer has been acting superintendent since July 1; a vote by the School Committee on Wednesday made her permanent superintendent retroactive to Jan. 1.

The district has received test kits and is preparing distribution. Instructions for the kits will be provided in multiple languages, and a video will give step-by-step instructions. Students who will not be in school before the break should notify their principal and arrange to get a test kit, Greer said.

“We also have to stress that there are no replacement tests that we will be able to distribute,” Greer said. “Our supplies are limited. There’s a high demand for the self-test, and so if the test gets lost or damaged, we will not be able to replace them.”

Families need to report only positive test results to their school.

New test protocols proposed

The district is proposing a student Covid-testing protocol starting in late February that district medical officer Lisa Dobberteen said would be more efficient and accurate.

Now, when “surveillance” or pooled test comes back positive, all students in the group are tested individually each day until the risk of infection passes. In the new approach, students will be swabbed twice and one will go into the pool. If the pool comes back positive, the second swab will be run, “finding that positive person in a quicker, more efficient time frame,” Dobberteen said. The district will notify close contacts that they may have been exposed to the virus.

All students and staff will have access to symptomatic testing too, and nurses may recommend additional testing in special circumstances. “We feel that that gives flexibility enough to test in the context of the school week, vaccinated or unvaccinated,” Dobberteen said.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which will provide the new rapid-test kits to districts, requires that staff and families opt into the program as well as students, either online or through family liaisons and other communication staff who can accept consent over the phone.

“We think that this new testing plan is going to offer more efficiency and greater ease,” Greer said. “It is also going to help relieve some of the pressure that nurses have been contending with over the past several months.”

High school Covid-test tryout

In addition, principal Damon Smith plans to try a new surveillance testing program among some Cambridge Rindge and Latin School students, Greer said. In the plan, devised in collaboration with Somerville High School’s principal, students will self-administer tests and nurses will go class-to-class to collect samples. The pilot will be revised based on feedback and expanded throughout the school.

It addresses a recurring problem described by student School Committee member Nuriel Vera-DeGraff: students missing classes or activities to take Covid tests due to the limited hours testing is available.

Cambridge Health Alliance has also expanded its teen health center hours for CRLS student vaccine and booster shots on Tuesdays from 8:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. by appointment, Greer said.

“I would like to note that they’re still only occurring during the school day, making this kind of a tough choice for some students to make,” Vera-DeGraff said.

But more hours are unlikely. “With the pandemic, nurses are golden, and we just don’t have staff availability to extend the hours beyond that,” said Dobberteen, adding that the center’s staff can help students appointments at other clinics.