by Preethika Vemula News Reporter & Sarah Wei News Editor
graphic by Emily Cheng
Amid a rise in COVID-19 cases nationwide and the spread of the new omicron variant, Newton Public Schools’ (NPS) COVID-19 precautions have increased in relevance. Since September, when NPS unveiled its tiered testing program, symptomatic and close-contact testing has been in effect in all grades, while pool testing has only been open to grades pre-K-6.
The testing program is part of the district’s COVID-19 safety plan for the complete reopening of schools and was recommended by the NPS Testing Working Group, a collection of doctors and school administrators. Testing is offered by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education through the Cambridge Innovation Center.
School Committee Chair Ruth Goldman said that the system has multiple levels of screening: symptomatic testing for all students grades pre-K-12, routine pool testing for grades pre-K-6 and a ‘Test to Stay’ program offered to unvaccinated close contacts.
According to a Sept. 9 School Committee presentation, symptomatic testing is intended for students who display symptoms in the building, while weekly pool testing serves as a precautionary measure with individual follow-up. The ‘Test to Stay’ program is administered after a person is in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
School Committee member Margaret Albright said that rapid antigen tests are used for ‘Test to Stay’ to limit the number of students who must quarantine.
“Students who did not opt into ‘Test to Stay’ have to quarantine, which means they stay home,” she said. “We did not want that. That’s why we went for as many [testing] options as we possibly could.”
Assistant Director of School Health Services Maureen Pursley wrote in a Nov. 17 email that the program has been effective at keeping students in the building.
“With daily testing for at least seven days for those students considered as close contact to a case at school, we have been able to keep just over 800 students in school learning instead of remaining home for a quarantine period,” she said.
Currently, pool testing is provided only to students in grades K-6 due to a shortage of resources, Pursley wrote.
“There were some challenges with the implementation early on with regard to our vendor having difficulty providing enough testing staff,” she said.
Ruth Hoshino, the director of School Health Services for NPS and a member of the Testing Working Group, said that the Medical Advisory Group prioritized students in grades K-6 for pool testing since many were not eligible for COVID-19 vaccines at the beginning of the school year.
With the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of vaccines for children between the ages of five to 12 on Oct. 29, Albright said that the tiered testing system may be adapted to accommodate for students in grades 7-12, who have just been FDA-approved to receive Pfizer booster shots.
“We will go back to our Medical Advisory Group to see what their input is once we have updated vaccine numbers,” she said. “When the grades 5-11 group gets more heavily vaccinated, we’re going to ask [the advisory group] to weigh in again.”
Students, like junior Audrey Wei, have called for expanded testing in the high schools. Wei said that, especially with the rise of new variants, she hopes to receive weekly testing soon.
Junior and South senator Lily Paltrowitz said that the unavailability of pool testing at South has made her feel wary about coming to school.
“It is very important that the school provides [pool] testing for students and faculty, especially those who are not vaccinated, in order to ensure everyone’s comfort and safety at school. I feel this is just one instance of the administration not living up to its expectations surrounding the pandemic,” she said. “The administration needs to do its job to keep our community safe. Testing is just a start.”