All-Island School Committee greenlights school COVID testing plan

Entire student population may get tested weekly.

AISC approved a plan to explore coronavirus testing of all Island children.

The All-Island School Committee (AISC) on Tuesday afternoon gave near-unanimous approval to motions authorizing efforts to raise money from the community to help fund COVID-19 school testing equipment, and to authorize the school superintendent to hire a health services organization to administer the program at Island schools.

AISC OK’ed, by a 13-1 vote, the fundraising effort to be led by Dr. Jeffrey Zack, the coordinator and the medical point person on the COVID school testing effort. Most of the AISC members approved the motion with verbal thank-yous for Zack’s efforts to date. Zack is an emergency room doctor to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. Member Kim Kirk cast the dissenting vote, citing the need for a more formal arrangement for the community fundraising effort.

The committee voted unanimously for Superintendent Matt D’Andrea to begin discussions with a professional health organization to oversee COVID testing for in-school learning at all six Island schools.

While Dr. Zack offered a preliminary financial estimate ($640,000) to provide testing machines and nearly 92,000 tests to 2,700 students, faculty, and school guests weekly over a 34-week academic year, AISC chair Robert Lionette asked school financial guru Mark Friedman to huddle with Zack and D’Andrea to generate a more complete financial estimate before the board meets again on Thursday of this week.

The votes followed a presentation by Zack on the benefits and drawbacks of three types of tests available — blood-based, antigen-based, and molecular-based test regimens. Zack is recommending molecular-based tests from sources such as Abbott Laboratories and Cepheid, which meet the criteria of Island school needs, he said. 

The Abbott swab test is proven to work, produces results within 15 minutes, is affordable, and importantly, is available today.

Zack speaks in an informal, refreshingly straightforward style. He seems a reluctant hero who is committed to see this medical emergency through, and he is a realist. While his Tuesday audience may have been hoping for a silver bullet, there isn’t one, Zack reported, and employed a sort of ‘the best is the enemy of the good’ argument to explain the options. 

“This virus is not gonna be over soon. The herd immunity solution will take years, and vaccine development [time frame] is unknown. As a society, we haven’t done contact tracing particularly well,” he said, though noting that the Island infection rate is very positively low (0.42 per cent). “And we want to keep learning going on here, to make our schools available for learning,” he said.
“The current testing gold standard is a nucleic acid test from Quest and others,” he said. Using Zack’s test cost estimate from Quest, the Times estimates the Quest test would cost $11,475,000 for an annual Island school testing program. 

“Each Quest test costs $125, and can take eight or nine days to return results,” he said.”If we get a kid getting sick at school, we want to test and know quickly, for isolation and contact tracing purposes,” he added. 

AISC members drilled down on Zack’s laundry list of tasks required to implement a weekly testing program, which would begin with a test the day before attending school, followed by weekly testing.

“I read some time ago that Abbott’s test was sort of a dud. Has that changed?” member Kate DeVane asked.

“I have torn all the test brands apart. There is a lot written about competitors by other brands. We can’t rely on that [commentary]. Now, no test from any company works 100 percent, including the gold standard,” he said, indicating that the Abbott-type test is a solid performer that meets the district’s needs.

DeVane asked what the best time frame is for testing students or faculty who have traveled and return to school, noting Zack recommends testing before returning to school. Zack answered that the highest COVID viral load occurs in 3½ to 5 days, when the carrier, who may be asymptomatic, is most infectious to others.

He noted, in answer to another board member question, that a combination of strip testing, about to come to market, with weekly testing, “would be a good combination.”

He said also that the molecular testing he is recommending uses swabs, but that saliva testing protocols are in development.

Zack’s laundry list of more than a dozen attendant testing tasks includes: testing protocols, training involved stakeholders, finding a nonprofit to assist, and creating buy-in from the community, boards of health, students, and faculty.

“To me this is all or nothing, it can’t be done partially. [Stakeholders] have opt in or out,” he declared. 

In answer to a question, students who opt out would have remote learning programs available to them, D’andrea told the meeting, before Lionette gaveled the one-hour, seven-minute Zoom meeting to a close.