When Superintendent Almi Abeyta of Chelsea listened in a Zoom meeting last fall to her fellow superintendents talk about what they were doing to get students back into school buildings, it was a window into the kind of educational inqueties the pandemic has brought on.
Wellesley's superintendent, David Lussier, mentioned an effort to bring COVID-19 testing to schools in his upscale community. Abeyta had been focusing on improving remote learning and ensuring kids in her district had food to eat.
"I was like, huh?" she recalled. "What do you mean, COVID testing in the schools? Are you serious? I couldn't even fathom it."
Affluent Wellesley, population 29,000, could turn to its local educational foundation to pay $250,000 for the project and raise private donations to fund its coronavirus testing program. In Chelsea, roughly the same size but one of the poorest municipalities in Massachusetts, there was no local foundation to turn to.
It probably wouldn't have mattered anyway. At the time, COVID-19 rates were so high that testing wouldn't have been effective.
It was a stark contrast between two communities — one a leafy suburban enclave of white-collar workers and medical elites, the other a poor-but-proud home to first responders and essential workers who helped keep the economy afloat, often at great personal expense.
Their educational fortunes did not start to converge until the state announced its own pool testing program in January to help get students back into classrooms. Wellesley parent Jesse Boehm, a scientist who has worked to expand pool testing beyond his town, applauded the state's effort.
"There's I think a widespread understanding that the experiment that's underway in Massachusetts is the nation's most comprehensive, most thoughtful and most deliberative of experiments," he said.
Experiment is a key word. Pool testing in schools can take place in many forms, but one of the main goals is to help identify COVID carriers who do not have symptoms but could spread the virus. Students swab the inside of their noses once or twice a week. Those tests are processed by a lab in small batches, a process less expensive than individual testing. Anyone in a pool that tests positive or comes in close contact is isolated or quarantined.
Michael Mina, an epidemiology professor at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health and one of the nation's early advocates for testing in schools, said one benefit is the ability to head off an outbreak early.
"The cost if we don't do it is that an outbreak can very quickly get out of hand inside a school," he said, "which is extremely costly to that community."
With pool testing, in addition to mask-wearing, social distancing and other hygiene measures, closings can be limited or avoided altogether.
But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that pool testing be used only where the rate of coronavirus infections is low because there's no point in identifying carriers in a community with a high infection rate. Parents also have to agree to having their children participate.
"If you have a low participation rate, then of course the testing programs lose their benefit," Mina said.
In Wellesley, participation has been near 100% since the program launched last fall, when many of the state's largest districts were closed to in-person learning.
Boehm, the local scientist, said testing was also a way to prove to students, teachers and staff that schools could be safe with the correct precautions. Vaccines were still months away, and no one wanted students to lose valuable classroom time.
Boehm also cofounded the Safer Teachers, Safer Students: Back to School Testing Collaborative, involving other communities like Chelsea, Rever and Watertown in an effort to figure out testing strategies to help reopen schools.
Chelsea's Abeyta joined the collaborative in October for its nighttime Zoom calls. She said she was eager to learn more, but it wasn't always easy to hear about the advances being made elsewhere.
"There were times when they were talking about testing kids and students and teachers months ago, and I would just be silent on the call, because I'm like, wow, I'm goning to be the last one who will be testing teachers and students," she said.
In January, as the coronavirus death toll mounted statewide, the Baker administration announced that it would make weekly pool testing available to school districts across the state. Federal stimulus funds would be pay for the initiative, the first of its kind in the country.
Since then, about half of the state's 400-plus districts have opted in. State officials say they don't know the overall participation rate of students whose districts have joined the experiment.
In Boston, the state's largest district, just 22% of parents or guardians have consented to pool testing, according to district officials. Notices went out through studnets and in the district's weekly newsletter.
Roxbury parent Tarina Harrison said it took time for her to warm up to the idea of having her 10-year-old tested.
"At first I was really against it, because I'm like, you're sticking Q-tips, you know, you're having kids do this?" she said. "That's not right, they're just babies!"
But as she learned more, inlcuding that the swabs are short, she changed her mind.
In Watertown, west of Boston, the school committee recently decided to make its long-running program mandatory.
South of Boston, in urban Fall River, Superintendent Matt Malone said that he thinks the time for pool testing may have come and gone as the focus shifts to when kids will be vaccinated.
"I think it's a lot of window dressing," he said of the state program. "I mean, I think it was a great idea several months ago. But now that I'm in April, we're so far beyond the need for pool testing."
State officials called the effort a game changer and tout the program's first-in-the-nation status. But it's unclear how to gauge the program's success broadly because officials say they do not track participation rates.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the state's initial funding of the pool testing program only paid for six weeks of testing. (It has since been expanded into this fall.) She said school officials, including those in cash-strapped districts, thought they would be on the hook to pay for the program when the initial funding dried up.
"This is another example of the inequity that comes from decades of disinvesting in our schools," Najimy said. "It's our larger schools that educate ... students of color and that don't have a school nurse in every building."
Back in Chelsea, COVID-19 infection rates have fallen out of the red zone. Abeyta, the superintendent, said pool testing finally started in March among a limited group of the neediest students. She credits her involvement with Safer Teachers, Safer Students for helping to make that happen. On April 12, most elementary students retruned to classrooms for the first time in more than a year.
Abeyta said she sees the inequities — but they don't deter her. Quite the opposite.
"It makes me work harder," she said. "And it makes me want to do even more for my community and my students."