Massachusetts will no longer provide COVID-19 testing to schools in the fall, frustrating educators and public health experts who say continued support is necessary.
Testing programs will largely end at the end of the school year, Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Rileywrote in a May 24 memo. During the summer, the state will begin to only provide at-home tests for symptomatic cases among students and staff. In the fall, it will be in the hands of individual districts to purchase and distribute tests.
“This is just one more irresponsible act of the commissioner to take away an important mitigation strategy and have nothing to replace it with,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “Educators are feeling demoralized because all of these decisions have been made about them without their real input. And they have been asked time and time again, in fact, expected to put their lives on the line in a way that they never had before.”
More than 2,200 public and private schools have participated in different state-provided testing programs, including rapid testing, pool testing and test-and-stay programs, according to the state. With schools left to purchase self tests through a statewide contract, experts say the change will exacerbate inequities across different districts.
“For those school districts that do decide to continue testing, they’re going to have to earmark additional funds outside of their existing programming to purchase it from the schools,” said Cassandra Pierre, medical director of Boston Medical Center Public Health Programs. “And that is not an inconsequential thing in school districts that are less resourced.”
“With the unremitting omicron surge and no signs of it letting up, we need more safeguards and protections rather than fewer ones,” wrote Alan Geller, a senior lecturer at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, in an email to GBH News. “The state should be doing all that it can to provide rapid tests to families who need it the most-those in communities of color and with lower income who have a harder time affording the prohibitive costs of rapid tests.
While case counts aredecreasing in Massachusetts, students and educators still face COVID-19 in the classroom. Pierre pointed to a high number ofhospitalizations anddeaths among children during the recent omicron surge. Without the option for pool testing, she worries that asymptomatic cases in schools will keep transmission high.
“One of the concerns I have is the language that we see shifting where you now are hearing that testing is a burden or an imposition that we're forcing on our children rather than the resource that it is,” said Pierre. “This disease has kind of highlighted our interconnectedness. So children can transmit to their parents, to their grandparents, to other vulnerable members of the community.”
The state’s decision comes as at-home rapid tests have become more widely available, compared to the early days of the pandemic when tests were scarce and often inaccurate. Now, people with insurance can get rapid testsat no out-of-pocket cost.
“Just because the requirement [for in-school testing] has been removed doesn't mean that it's not necessary,” she said. “And it's important to avail yourselves of experts, potentially even parents in your districts who have some public health, infectious disease or other expertise that allow them to kind of help guide the district in the right decision based on who actually is going to school in that district.”
As the state pivots away from funding testing, the teachers’ union is looking into new options, including studying wastewater to detect infection levels.
“If we're going to take away rapid testing, it needs to be replaced with some kind of tool that's still going to help us understand the rates of infection — school by school and town by town,” Najimy said.
Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.