By Susan Gonsalves, Contributing Writer
Westborough – Would pool testing for COVID-19 be a pathway for students, faculty and staff to return to school safely? That question was a topic at the Westborough School Committee meeting on February 3.
Superintendent Amber Bock gave a presentation on the measure which has been studied by the safety committee. That group ruled out a state model for testing as too disruptive and labor intensive. They were also concerned it could expose more people to the virus because it involved repeated trips back to the school for re-tests.
She also talked about a method used by JCM Analytics. In this case, the materials are sent home in a container the size of a toothpaste tube. After taking the test, the participant returns the sample in a bag with a bar code that is scanned and delivered to the company.
Each person has now had a PCR test, Bock explained. JCM Analytics then does a pool test with those samples. If there is a positive result, they are able to pinpoint the individual who is infected. Only that person goes home and has his/her immediate circle quarantined quickly, she said.
Bock said that she is estimating if 2,000 students from the 2,800 students in the hybrid model participate, it will cost $32,000 a week over an 18-week period.
She noted that Northborough/Southborough has had 80 percent and 90 percent participation rates at the middle and high school levels. They are now going to test K-12. Shrewsbury is also using pool testing. Bock said she took the average.
School Committee member Raghu Nandan felt that 1,000 students weekly on a rotating basis seemed more realistic. He said the idea is to find out how widespread the disease is and not to test everyone.
Bock said another option is to test in grades 4 to 12 because older kids demonstrate more symptoms. On the other hand, students in K-3 may not have symptoms but could carry COVID-19 and possibly infect others.
“We’re having these types of complex discussions as we look at the potential of pool testing,” she said.
School Committee Vice Chair Stephen Doret questioned spending around $500,000 when there is a very low positivity rate. He asked whether the 750 staff members should be tested versus thousands of people.
There was discussion about vaccination of teachers and how they could be rotated out of the process over time. The option of testing every other week instead was also brought up.
Bock said they could use CARES Act funds and other grant money to cover the costs and go out to bid. Taxpayers would not be affected.
Doret added that teachers should get high priority for vaccinations. School organizations must pressure the state to make shots available in 351 towns, he noted. “(It’s) needed for the health of our kids.”
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