Starting in early December, 134 school districts, charter schools and special education collaboratives will have access to rapid COVID-19 tests for students or staff members who show symptoms of the respiratory disease while school is in session.
The school testing initiative will launch as the number of tests available and able to be processed has ramped up significantly from the spring, and as more and more people choose to get tested regardless of their symptoms to have peace of mind. Testing technology has come a long way from the early days of the pandemic and people may be able to test themselves for the coronavirus quickly at home in the next few months, Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday.
The first phase of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's testing initiative will use Abbott's BinaxNOW, an antigen test that uses a nasal swab and test card to return a result in about 15 minutes, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said. Last month, the Trump administration said it was sending more than 2 million of the BinaxNOW tests to Massachusetts.
"As we have said many times, staff and students must stay home if they are not feeling well. However, some people may experience the onset of symptoms while at school. The Abbot BinaxNOW tests will allow schools and districts to rapidly respond to these types of situations," Riley said. "By testing students and teachers and getting results within minutes we will be able to identify infected individuals and their close contacts more quickly, and to help stop any spread."
A school must get consent from the student's parent or guardian before a school nurse or another medical technician performs the nasal swab. If the result comes back positive on the BinaxNOW test, it must be confirmed with a molecular test.
The 134 districts or schools that will participate in the first phase of the testing initiative were not identified Wednesday, but Riley said it was "a broad mix of schools" that volunteered to be part of the program. He said DESE is "in the process of finalizing that list."
There are 403 school districts in Massachusetts so the majority are not part of the first wave of testing.
Riley said the testing program was designed to help districts continue with in-person learning as much as possible, a priority of the Baker administration. But he said that mission is made more difficult by the rising number of COVID-19 cases.
"I can't restate the governor's points enough that we really need people to redouble their efforts around preventing the spread of this virus. What we see in schools and what we've seen already in some places is we don't think transmission is happening in schools," Riley said. "But that doesn't mean that kids or teachers aren't bringing a positive case into schools."
Baker said he's optimistic about the BinaxNOW test not only because it has been shown to be reliable in identifying COVID-19 cases, but because it costs $5 per test and is "really easy to use."
Massachusetts will use its BinaxNOW tests in schools and maybe in correctional facilities, Baker said, and other states plan to use theirs in other settings. Once the use of the test is widespread, Baker said, it will provide troves of data that will help get to the point at which people can go to the drug store, buy a pack of 10 tests and keep them in their medicine cabinet to test themselves at home.
"My hope would be to see it before the spring," Baker said Wednesday. He added, "The feds bought basically the entire production run between now and the end of the calendar year ... I think they bought 150 million. So coming behind that will be what I would call a production run that would be available more broadly to states and to the public."