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Avery Bleichfeld
Mass schools face COVID test delays
BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius planned to rely on testing as a major component of the district’s COVID mitigation strategy. BANNER FILE PHOTO

Before the start of the 2021-22 school year, Boston Public Schools officials hailed frequent pool testing for COVID-19 as one of the main mitigation strategies they planned to use to minimize the spread of the virus.

Now, nearly a month into the semester, nurses at BPS schools said the testing program contracted by the state has been lacking, leaving some students untested and the to-do lists of already-busy school nurses more packed than ever.

Going into the school year, BPS nurses weren’t expecting to have to run pool testing. Instead, that responsibility was supposed to fall to staff from CIC Health, a Cambridge-based company that started during the pandemic. CIC Health was contracted by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to provide pool testing to districts across the state.

According to the district, under an agreement with the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) — which includes school nurses — the nurses were only supposed to administer rapid tests for students showing symptoms of COVID-19. They weren’t expected to do any pool testing, nor administer tests for the district’s “Test and Stay” program, under which asymptomatic students who are close contacts to a positive case can stay in class if they receive daily COVID-19 tests for five days.

But Paola Martinez, a nurse at the Rafael Hernandez School in Roxbury, said that last week she was asked to test students who were part of a pool test that came back positive.

“Of course, I wanted to test them right away because I do not want to expose more kids to somebody that is positive, maybe, in that pool, in the classroom,” Martinez said. “So, I went ahead and had to close my office to see regular incoming students, and I went out to test 19 students — two different pools — and I tested one that was positive, so then we had to do the process of that student going home.”

Cases like that of Martinez stem from a staffing shortage of CIC employees, according to nurses, BPS administration and the BTU. Martinez said she saw instances of miscommunications that further complicated issues, while BPS said that the shift from a hybrid learning model to full in-person instruction this year made it easier to underestimate what the load would be like.

BTU President Jessica Tang  said that the struggles have been felt across the district, to varying degrees. CIC employees were slow to pick up tests at some schools, while at others — such as the Boston Community Leadership Academy and the McCormack School — testing hadn’t occurred at all.

For Marta Bausemer, a BPS nurse at the Boston Green Academy in Brighton, the challenging rollout of pool testing has only made an already-hefty workload heavier. Between her normal responsibilities, expected COVID-19 tasks and now the unexpected job of helping run pool testing, she said this has been the most stressed she has ever felt at her job in the more than 12 years she has worked there.

“We’re the front lines [for COVID-19 in schools], we really, truly are; you’re the COVID specialist in your school,” Bausemer said. “You are answering every single question, every single case, every single positive, every single quarantine question. You are the one everybody’s going to. I’m reached out to before 6 a.m.; I have staff calling me, or someone calling me, literally almost every other day, on weekends and evenings.”

Tang said the situation with pool testing has increased the burden on school nurses as they try to help third-party employees from outside of the district in situations where, according to Tang, the nurses shouldn’t have to step in.

“They have a lot of other responsibilities that they haven’t been able to fully do because of the disorganization and lack of staffing and execution of the pool testing from the third party,” Tang said.

The struggle hasn’t been felt only in Boston. Beth Kontos, president of the Massachusetts branch of the American Federation of Teachers, said districts across the state relying on the DESE-contracted testing have been facing challenges.

“[Districts] that are privately hiring an ambulance company to come in and do the pool testing and take it away the same day that they come, they’re having fewer problems, because it’s a smaller group of people working together,” Kontos said. “Where I’m hearing the problems are the ones that are using the DESE-contracted company.”

According to Kontos, some tests in Chelsea weren’t picked up for two weeks — long after any results would have given useful information. She said the pool testing system in Springfield Public Schools still isn’t running effectively. That district has been in classes since the end of August.

In a statement sent to the Banner, CIC Health acknowledged the challenge and asked for patience.

“There has been a high volume of demand in an extremely short period of time,” the statement said. “As community members and parents ourselves, our top priority at CIC Health is the safety of the students, teachers and families we serve, and our team is working around the clock to scale up our testing programs. We have already helped over 1,000 schools across the Commonwealth perform tens of thousands of pooled tests this fall.

In the statement, CIC Health said they received requests to test in almost three times as many schools as they had anticipated.

Despite the challenges, representatives from BPS said they remain dedicated to testing, which BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, at a press conference in early September, described — along with masks, vaccinations and improved ventilation in buildings — as one of four main mitigation strategies the district planned to use.

“Boston Public Schools is grateful to DESE for providing COVID-19 testing services, an important mitigation strategy to ensure the health and safety of our students, staff, families and overall community,” the district said in a statement sent to the Banner. “We acknowledge there have been some implementation challenges and we appreciate our partners’ ongoing efforts to make improvements. We are in discussions with DESE to increase staffing capacity of our testing vendor, CIC Health.”

CIC Health said the company is working to ramp up the programs and make them more effective.

Across the state, Kontos said there have been discussions about pulling more staff into nurses’ offices to help with the non-medical tasks and reduce workload.

Meanwhile, Bausemer said she has been part of discussions with the BTU to find ways to improve the situation and is advocating that the district “think out of the box on this one.”

“I feel like I am being heard, but I’m just not seeing the change immediately,” Bausemer said. “I’m just trying to be patient with it. I’m hopeful, but let’s get this done immediately.”

For Kontos, getting more parents to sign onto the districts’ testing set-up, which by DESE mandate is currently opt-in rather than opt-out, is an important step while the country waits for a vaccine to be made available for students under 12.

According to BPS, of the more than 54,000 students they teach, over 20,000 have consent forms opting into the testing program.

Meanwhile, Bausemer said making the testing process easy and effective for those students whose parents have consented remains an important way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in school populations.

“If we’re going to do it, we’ve got to do it right,” Bausemer said. “You can’t just test a couple kids in school, you have to test them all, everyone that signed up, all the staff. That’s what you’ve got to do to do pool testing right.”