NPS Rolls Out Controversial COVID-19 Testing Program

by Sawyer Cohen, News Reporter
photo by Alex Merkowitz

Newton Public Schools (NPS) has developed a COVID-19 testing plan for teachers and students as high schools prepare to return to in-person learning in late January. The plan has sparked controversy over testing frequency and methods. 

Health and Human Services Commissioner Deborah Youngblood said that NPS has already launched voluntary testing for asymptomatic faculty and staff. Teachers who opt in to the plan will receive tests once a month. The teachers are divided into four waves, the first of which was tested during the week of Dec. 17. Schools will also have tests in the nurse’s office that provide fast, although potentially less accurate, results for students who develop symptoms while at school. 

“We’re using rapid antigen tests for people who are symptomatic to do a quick look to see whether or not they’re positive,” Youngblood said. “They will still have to get a confirmation using a PCR [polymerase chain reaction] test.”

Safer Teachers, Safer Students (STSS) is a group of scientist and physician parents in Newton and nearby towns that has advocated for the implementation of surveillance testing in NPS and neighboring school districts. In a letter on Dec. 7, STSS said that while they are pleased that NPS has increased testing availability, more frequent asymptomatic and symptomatic testing is necessary to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in schools. 

In the Sept. 14 joint School Committee and City Council meeting, City Councilor Marc Laredo offered for the City Council to provide money to fund surveillance testing and other resources that would allow for a safe return to school. However, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and Youngblood said in the meeting that surveillance testing was not a prerequisite to reopening schools.

NPS parent and STSS member Suzanne Jacobs said that NPS’s current testing plan is insufficient in comparison to towns like Wellesley and Watertown.

“Other nearby towns have been testing teachers every week,” she said. “Newton should also follow this path.”

NPS teachers have also voiced concern over the testing plan. Math teacher Ryan Normandin said that the plan does not provide proper surveillance testing.

“It would not keep anybody safe,” he said. “What we’re looking for is something like what Wellesley has, where you’re testing everyone in the building once a week.”

Superintendent David Fleishman said that NPS is prepared for a potential COVID-19 outbreak at a school.

“If there’s an outbreak, we would want to have symptomatic testing and obviously some asymptomatic testing,” he said. “Thankfully there haven’t been outbreaks at many schools because people have been so careful, but it could certainly happen and we want to be ready.”

Nurse Gail Kramer said that the school nurses are yet to have had a meeting about testing protocol for when high schools reopen at the end of January. 

Jacobs said that the district has not been adequately responsive to the requests of STSS to increase testing.

“From my perspective, the city is not just ignoring those of us advocating for

surveillance testing, they are also ignoring the science and data that show it is an effective, additional

safety measure that can help curb spread,” she said.

Normandin said that if the district does not increase testing, he and other teachers will likely resign.

“I’m just not comfortable working in a place that doesn’t value our safety and refuses to give us surveillance testing, even after the City Council offered money to help pay for it,” he said.