Tufts University, Medford and Somerville launch innovative COVID-19 testing program for PK-12 schools

New, more efficient pooled testing model could make PK-12 education safer, curb spread in local communities
A gloved hand places a vial containing a COVID-19 testing sample with an array of other vials.
Credit: Alonso Nichols, Tufts University
October 29, 2020

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Patrick Collins

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. (Oct. 29, 2020)—Tufts University and the Cities of Medford and Somerville today announced they have entered into a novel partnership that will bring COVID-19 surveillance testing to the cities’ public school systems, using a new, more efficient pooled testing method developed by Tufts in collaboration with Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. The new method could improve and expedite communities’ ability to return to and maintain in-person education.

The program, developed and validated by Tufts, enables the Medford and Somerville school districts to administer tests to students, faculty, and staff for approximately one-third of the cost of individual testing.

Tentatively, the program will begin in January; details are being finalized between Tufts and both cities. For the month of December, the university has agreed to support individual testing of Medford and Somerville teachers, custodial and administrative staff, health professionals, and other student-facing essential personnel working in person in the schools, as well as students learning onsite, splitting the cost with the cities.

“Getting PK-12 schools back up and safely running is critical for the education of our young people, their mental health, and their families’ peace of mind, as well as the health and safety of the larger community,” said Anthony P. Monaco, Tufts University president and renowned geneticist who designed the strategy. “This cost-effective solution provides a way for local school districts to hold in-person instruction while confidently knowing they will be able to identify and control potential spread of the virus. I applaud the mayors’ leadership in adopting this solution and appreciate our close collaboration and partnership on this and many other projects throughout the pandemic.”

Combined with the cities’ and school districts’ efforts on masking, social distancing, de-densifying classrooms, and ventilation system upgrades, the pooled testing program will enable local health officials to reduce virus transmission risk in the schools. In particular, the frequent and system-wide testing of school staff and students will increase identification of carriers—particularly asymptomatic carriers—allowing the schools to intervene early and take steps to stem the virus from spreading as widely as it might otherwise.

“It is not enough to simply reopen our schools. We must open them as safely as possible and create the conditions that will help keep them open, and I want to thank President Monaco and the university for this significant contribution to that effort,” said Mayor Joe Curtatone. “No student or family benefits when new virus outbreaks cause schools to see-saw from open to closed and back again. This universal testing plan plus the robust contact tracing we are putting in place is designed to break that cycle and better protect student and staff health. No measure is failsafe with this virus, but we are fortunate to have partners like Tufts at our side as we strive for a sustainable and safe reopening.”

“Our school staff testing partnership with Tufts has allowed us to get our teachers and students back into the classroom with the added safety of knowing about a potential staff exposure in our schools, and with the ability to be proactive in our efforts at containing the spread of COVID-19. Although details need to be worked out and a final agreement needs to be reached, we are excited at the possibility of adding a pooled testing method that would greatly expand our ongoing efforts and continue to keep our students and staff safe and healthy,” said Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn. “We look forward to working with Tufts, Medford’s elected leaders, and the community to continue getting our kids back to school and keeping them—and their families—safe as we work our way through the fall and winter.”

Here is the design for the pooled testing program:

  • Under the direction of school staff and/or EMTs, teachers and high school students will sample the front part of their noses with a non-invasive swab; PK-8 students will be swabbed by a nurse or EMT.
  • Eight swabs will be packaged into a single tube and sent to Broad Institute, which will analyze the group of swabs together.
  • If the pool of samples comes back positive, all the people in that pool will be retested individually, which will enable health authorities to isolate the positive case(s) in the pool.
  • The cities’ health directors will manage follow-up, which will include contact tracing and Isolation for positive cases, and quarantine support for close contacts according to state and federal guidelines.  

Even with the retesting required after a pool tests positive, the program is less expensive than large-scale individual testing because it requires only a fraction of the analysis.

Currently, Medford Public Schools are staging their reopening in a hybrid model, with some grades having returned to a split-cohort, in-person model and some still remote. Somerville Public Schools are currently virtual, with a plan to phase in in-person classes through a hybrid model starting in early December.

Research indicates that testing is particularly important in densely populated environments such as Somerville, where many families live in multifamily units and multigenerational households. Medford, while not as densely populated, has higher percentages of families living with children under the age of 18 and in multigenerational households than Somerville has.

To support the success of the program, Tufts will make available to each city a scalable technology platform it has developed to support the scheduling, order submission, labeling, and monitoring of near real-time results from large-scale testing operations. This software platform is presently in use at Tufts and three other colleges in Massachusetts.

To develop the pooled testing program, Tufts took what it has learned from its own COVID-19 testing program, which has completed more than 120,000 individual tests since it began in August. The university continues to have a very low number of positive tests, with a rate of just 0.04 percent positive tests since August and just 0.03 percent over the last seven days ending October 26. Both numbers are significantly lower than the state’s over the same time periods. University officials attribute the results to a combination of factors, including testing and students’ commitment to compliance with both city and university rules regarding masking, social distancing, hand hygiene, and avoiding large gatherings.

Studies have already found pooled testing to be effective with another type of COVID-19 test, in which swabs must be transported in liquid-filled tubes. Broad Institute’s method, which uses dry tubes, requires less equipment and fewer supplies and personnel and is safer for a pooled testing approach.

The testing program is the most recent effort the university has undertaken to support its local communities during the pandemic. Other efforts have included: