Hull Public Schools will be piloting COVID-19 pooled testing for grades eight and nine, with a targeted start date of March 8.
The idea behind pooled testing is that a large number of people – 10, in this case – be tested at one time, providing assessment data within a short time frame.
A remote parent forum about this program was to be held this Thursday, Feb. 25, conducted by School Superintendent Judith Kuehn and the school nurses. In pooled testing, samples are gathered from multiple people and mixed together. Instead of testing each individual sample on its own, a laboratory tests the pool. If the pool tests negative, then the individuals in that pool are considered to be negative. If a pool tests positive, a re-test of all members of the pool is necessary.
While participation is not mandatory, parents are encouraged to fill out a pooled testing consent form, which will be available to every family through email and other forms of communication. The Hull Teachers Association and the school administration are working together to try to get all families on board with the effort.
“This is an efficient, precise, and cost-effective way to detect the virus in a population, such as a school or classroom, and is appropriate for surveillance testing,” Kuehn told The Hull Times. “Getting the vaccine is our number-one priority. But in the meantime, pooled testing provides another level of security to help minimize the spread of COVID-19 within the Hull school community.” (Surveillance testing refers to regular testing for individuals who are not experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms.)
When a test pool of students/teachers is conducted, participants are wearing face masks and practice social distancing in compliance with Hull Public Schools health and safety protocols already in place.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, is offering a free COVID-19 screening program, using a pooled testing approach,” Kuehn explained. “This testing program will require personnel and funding” further down the road.
Pooled testing was discussed at Monday’s School Committee meeting. Member David Twombly urged all parents of eighth- and ninth-graders to sign up for this program.
“I don’t think people want to have a false sense of security,” he said. “We want to get as many people to participate as possible so we know whether there are any COVID-19 cases inside our schools.”
Hull Teachers Association Co-President Brian Mullin said he and other teachers are pleased that pooled testing is a proactive, rather than a reactive, approach. He also encouraged widespread participation in the program for it to be effective.
“It’s a super-easy process,” he said. “The logistics are still being worked out.”
Mullin noted that some parents are reticent about having their children participate out of a concern that they might be quarantined. But he went on to describe pooled testing as “the best tool we have right now to help keep our children and teachers safe while we’re still in a pandemic. We need the cooperation of all the parents and the entire school community to make this work.”
Mullin cited statistics showing that 50 percent of youth that contract COVID-19 do not display or experience symptoms. “But that doesn’t stop the spread,” he said. “That’s why pooled testing is so important.”
He said HTA members are enthusiastic about the pooled testing “because it will be a quick way of detecting who has COVID.”
If someone tests positive, they are required to quarantine. In addition, the Hull Board of Health performs contact tracing in accordance with state requirements, which involves notifying those who have come into contact with individuals who have tested positive. They are then expected to quarantine.
A PCR (swab test) will be performed on teachers and students (with parental permission) who test positive through pooled testing and will then be submitted to South Shore Hospital through a partnership with the Hull Public Schools. PCR results usually come back 24 to 36 hours later. “We’re encouraging everyone to participate,” Kuehn said, outlining how it helps prevent community COVID-19 by:
* identifying asymptomatic cases (individuals who have COVID-19 but are not exhibiting symptoms);
* providing reassurance in the effectiveness of safety protocols and mitigation efforts;
* helping to reduce fear and anxiety among staff, students, and families about in-person learning, leading to a more positive teaching and learning experience; and
* maximizing in-person learning for students for the above reasons.
According to Kuehn, as of Monday’s School Committee meeting there had been no coronavirus cases among students and staff in the past two weeks. Hull is now in the medium-risk zone after having been in the red zone for some time.
Kuehn thanked the school nurses for their efforts to keep students and staff safe. “That has always been our priority,” she said.