BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts will make millions of rapid coronavirus test kits available to schools across the state so staff and students can test themselves weekly at home and schools can stay open for in-person instruction, Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday.
Schools that opt in to the system can discontinue contact tracing and the test-and-stay program, the Republican governor said at a news conference.
The test-and-stay program, in which students who have had close contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus are tested at school for five days to avoid quarantining, has saved about half a million school days in the state already this year.
"It's been massively successful in avoiding days lost at home, but the current state of the pandemic requires that we adapt our efforts to meet the times," the governor said.
The drawback of the test-and-stay program is that it eats up a lot of school nurse time, state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeffrey Riley said.
He called distribution of the at-home tests a "game changer."
"Providing this option for at-home testing will allow school nurses to spend more time identifying symptomatic individuals and focus their efforts on other aspects of COVID-19 management in our schools," he said.
There is the potential for even more weekly testing with the at-home tests, he said. Schools that want to can continue with the test-and-stay program.
Schools will be able to start opting in to the program this week for staff and will receive tests starting next week. Schools will receive tests for students whose families voluntarily opt in during the week of Jan. 31. The program will run through the April vacation week and then be reassessed at that time, Riley said.
The tests, which will ship directly to school districts, are coming from the supply of 26 million at-home rapid antigen tests being purchased by the state.
The Massachusetts School Nurses Organization and the Massachusetts Teachers Association union both supported the governor's announcement, but the union said it did not go far enough.
"It is a welcome relief for school nurses to provide our district families and staff with at-home testing opportunities moving forward," nurses organization President Doreen Crowe said in a statement.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers union, has been pushing for expanded testing, but President Merrie Najimy called expanded home testing a "good first step."
"This lacks a long-term strategy that's going to get us through the end of the year," she said.
She called for the continuation of contact tracing, more testing for communities of color, a plan for remote learning if it becomes necessary, and more attention to updating school ventilation systems.