READING - In a live experiment of a proposal to stage the COVID-19 surveillance at a singular location this year, School officials will relaunch a local “pooled testing” program at the Killam Elementary School tomorrow afternoon.
In a message recorded last week but posted to social media earlier this week, Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Thomas Milaschewski advised parents that all students and teachers can avail themselves of the optional COVID-19 testing service between the hours of 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Friday.
According to Milascheweki, with school nurses already tasked with administering a separate “test-and-stay” program and contact tracing duties, he hopes to continue using the Killam Elementary School as a districtwide center for the second state-sanctioned COVID-19 testing initiative.
“Next week, we plan to offer pool testing to our students, particularly those who aren’t vaccinated,” the superintendent explained in the recent video message. “It’s an option for students across the district, even though it’s just housed at the Killam.”
In a COVID-19 surveillance program that was first used by colleges and universities, pooled testing involves multiple individuals providing biological samples for inclusion in a single polymerase chain reaction testing vial.
Though not a viable method for identifying individual COVID-19 cases, the surveillance tool is used to give a snapshot of the scale of disease outbreaks within large populations.
Because multiple people are tested at once, the pooled testing program has been promoted by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) as a cheap and less-labor intensive way to quickly find and isolate infected students and staff members.
Per the testing protocol, up to six people provide samples for each vial, and if that batch returns a negative result, all of those individuals are presumed to be COVID-19 free.
However, on the flip-side, because a solitary sick individual could be the cause of a positive result, each person who provided a sample in a pooled kit with a positive finding will have to seek out a follow-up polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.
Last February, Reading agreed to partake in DESE’s pooled-testing initiative, which is again being offered to the district this year free-of-charge.
In a major change to the program, students and staff members who participate in the testing during the 2021-2022 academic year will provide two samples on a weekly basis.
DESE says by providing two specimens, local school officials won’t have to chase after and schedule follow-up tests for individuals in the event that a pooled test turns up positive. Instead, testing clinicians will already be in possession of the individual samples needed to identify the person(s) who have contracted COVID-19.
Local participation in pooled testing program will theoretically be lower than last year, because individuals who are vaccinated are encouraged not to partake in the testing option.
The district has also enrolled in a separate test-and-stay initiative this year aimed at limiting extended student absences from the classroom due to quarantine orders.
Under test-and-stay, participating students who have come into close contact with a person who contracted with COVID-19 can escape 10-day stay-at-home orders by testing negative for the viral infection via a BiNax Now antigen test.
Unlike PCR tests, which search for a segment of DNA found in the SARS-Cov-2 virus that causes COVID-19, BiNax Now is designed to hone-in on spike proteins that cover the surface of the pathogen. Unlike PCR test, which can take days to complete, BiNax Now kits return results in a matter of minutes.
According to Milaschewski, as of last week, at least 195 students and teachers were allowed to stay within the classroom rather than submit to quarantine orders thanks to the test-and-stay protocols. School nurses, who are required to take specimens for testing on a daily basis for qualifying individuals, have reportedly administered more than 700 antigen tests since the resumption of classes in September.
“We’re really thankful to all our nurses for their work on the test-and-stay program, which has allowed us to keep students out of traditional quarantine programs,” said the superintendent.