The effort will support K-12 schools by quickly and accurately detecting early infection in students, teachers, and staff at a low cost
Among the most vulnerable victims of the COVID-19 pandemic are the many children whose educational, social, and developmental needs have not been met due to school closures and limited in-person instruction. Children from under-served socioeconomic groups and those with special needs, learning difficulties, and mental health disorders suffer disproportionately due to lack of services and resources usually provided by schools.
In order to reopen schools safely and meet these needs, regularly testing students and teachers to identify COVID-19 cases early, before viral transmission, would be optimal, but such testing is too expensive for many communities.
This month, Tufts University and the cities of Medford and Somerville have launched a new COVID-19 pooled-testing program that will support K-12 schools by quickly and accurately detecting early infection in students, teachers, and staff while costing only about one-third as much as individual testing.
This is believed to be the only COVID-19 testing partnership between a university and Massachusetts public school districts, and one of the few pooled-testing programs in the state. Tufts President Anthony Monaco designed the pooled-testing methodology, which was developed by Tufts in collaboration with Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and validated through on-campus testing.
“There is growing awareness across the country of the tremendous importance that safely reopening schools plays in the health and development of children of all ages,” said Monaco. “The cities’ mayors are demonstrating true leadership by implementing this innovative program, which will enable local schools to hold in-person classes while protecting public health in a cost-effective manner. We at Tufts are proud to have been able to share our expertise and actively support this initiative that will benefit our communities as a whole.”
Medford schools have been offering a hybrid of in-person and distance learning since the fall, and Somerville will be phasing in on-site classes during the school year. While working out the details of pooled testing, Tufts supported individualized tests in Medford and Somerville.
“We are incredibly thankful to President Monaco and Tufts University for making access to testing available for our students, teachers, and staff, and we are excited to start the pooled-testing program,” said Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn.
“Thanks in large part to the ongoing testing program, we began bringing students back into schools at the end of September, have sustained a hybrid model for in-school learning, and have been able to identify positive cases early and prevent in-school spread of COVID-19,” Lungo-Koehn added. “To date, all grades are now back in school buildings part-time, and we are thankful to Tufts for helping us achieve that milestone. We look forward to this new partnership with pooled testing and to keeping our students and staff in our school buildings safely.”
“Somerville has been working diligently to ensure the safest possible reopening of our schools, and we know that access to testing is a critical component for understanding how and when COVID-19 could spread within a school environment and the community as a whole,” said Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone. “Quality testing is among our top priorities, and it will take an innovative approach to make it happen. That’s why we’ve partnered with Tufts University and Broad Institute on a pooled-testing program.”
The pooled-testing methodology will combine nasal swab samples from 10 individuals into one group. Each pooled sample will undergo polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analysis, considered the gold standard for detecting the SARS-CoV-2 virus, said Tufts Vice President and Chief Information Officer Chris Sedore.
Testing will be twice weekly for teachers and staff and weekly for students. Within a day or less, schools will retest members of positive pools, and individuals who are COVID-positive will isolate to interrupt any in-school transmission.
Tufts has provided each city with a unique technology platform and software that supports efficient order submission, labeling, and monitoring of results. Detailed planning goes right down to provision of custom-designed clear, acrylic boxes with funnels that make it easy to collect sample tubes. Broad Institute will conduct tests through its collaboration with Tufts; the cities are responsible for administering all tests, contact tracing, and communications with parents, students, and employees.
In addition to technology, Tufts is providing the cities with a comprehensive program strategy based on knowledge gained in designing and implementing its own university-wide pandemic-control plan.
As part of that effort, Tufts has administered more than 300,000 tests on the Medford/Somerville, Boston, and Grafton campuses, which has helped keep Tufts’ COVID-19 cases well below Massachusetts levels. A Tufts-created readiness handbook identifies the steps schools need to take to begin testing, including test strategies, personnel and site selection, data and technology requirements, and timelines.
However, the partnership is about much more than mechanics, according to Sedore. “It’s about how to support parents and teachers, understand issues and concerns, and answer questions,” he said. “We know that Medford and Somerville parents will have many of the same questions that our students and parents had, such as ‘Does the test work with known COVID-19 variants?’ (yes). Our support can help them navigate uncharted waters.”
Tufts is committed to sharing its knowledge broadly and has submitted research for publication, according to Vice Provost for Research Caroline Genco. Five other colleges are already using Tufts’ software.
The initiative continues Tufts’ effort to support the local community during the COVID-19 pandemic that began almost a year ago, noted Rocco DiRico, Tufts’ director of government and community relations. “It’s a credit to the strong relationship between Tufts and its host communities that we have taken a holistic approach from the beginning, developing strategies to face these unprecedented challenges together.”
Recalling seeing how a school nurse helped a Medford kindergarten student with her test, Sedore is optimistic about the new program, which, like any startup, will likely encounter some bumps along the way.
“The little girl twirled the swab in her nostril, and when the nurse reached for it, the child insisted on doing it again before handing the swab back,” said Sedore. “That was one of the high points for me. This program is an incredible reflection of Tufts’ commitment to making the world a better place. We’re living our values in a way that makes me very proud.”