Island school committee approves testing directive

Superintendent will look to finalize a mandatory testing program for staff and students.

With mandatory testing, Island schools will identify locations in each building where a testing team can be staged to safely testing students and staff before they enter. — Lucas Thors

The All-Island School Committee (AISC) gave the green light for Superintendent Matt D’Andrea to finalize a mandatory testing program for Vineyard schools.

At Thursday’s committee meeting, members voted unanimously — some with a degree of trepidation — to approve a six-point directive drafted by Superintendent D’Andrea. The purview of the AISC is such that each individual school committee must convene to approve the directive as well, along with any funds to be appropriated.

In late August, the AISC gave the green light for a fundraising initiative that would request community support from donors, and would authorize D’Andrea to hire a health services organization to administer the program at schools.

No indication was given at the meeting as to how much donor money has already been amassed.

Although the health and safety task force did not take an official vote on the directive before presenting it to the AISC, D’Andrea said it is their recommendation.

As part of the extensive deliberation surrounding funding sources, budgetary requirements for each school, and the complex nature of implementing such a program, Dr. Jeff Zack of the health and safety task force gave a more detailed presentation than committee members had seen in the past. 

“Our most important goal is to get our kids back in the building — all of them. The question really is, How can we get our kids in school, and keep our kids in school?” Zack said.

In order to facilitate the transfer of funds from private donors to the school, a grant is being created through the Martha’s Vineyard Bank Charitable Foundation that will reimburse Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPCS) once they have reviewed invoices from involved entities.

The schools will still each have to come up with a share of the $150,000 that is not being currently covered by external funding sources, and D’Andrea said MVYPS has divided the cost up by enrollment. District principals have identified areas in their budgets where the money will come from. To appropriate district funds, each school committee must meet and approve before their share is encumbered.

Mark Friedman, finance manager for the committee, said the Chilmark School allocation would be around $3,800, and most of the elementary schools “are in the $25,000 range” because their student population size is similar. The highest allocation would be from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, at about $46,000.

Apart from the additional funding needed to pay for acquisition of tests and implementation of a program, Zack said the schools will also be responsible for some other costs. Island schools have already hired additional nurses and health and wellness staff, and will not receive reimbursement for those expenses. According to Zack, schools will also have to foot the bill for any unforeseen costs, such as increased testing frequency, or increased range of testing for certain groups.

The schools must also adhere to a stringent screening policy, and no student or staff member will be allowed in the building without regular screening.

As for the logistics of testing, Zack said testing sites will be decentralized — meaning his team is looking to put test sites at each school, in order to approve efficiency and compliance.

He said his plan is to test elementary schools once per week, somewhere in the “9 am to noon realm,” and aims for the entire process to take place in that time span.

The MVRHS testing program will likely be a two-day-per-week testing program, based on the student population size.

The entire program will have a chain of command, with an incident commander in charge of global oversight who will head the ongoing initiative to troubleshoot and reassess.

“This person will oversee the test teams at each school. I am happy to announce that Carol Bardwell, who used to be at the hospital [Martha’s Vineyard Hospital] and has a really great background in disaster medicine and incident command, has agreed to step into that role,” Zack said.

He said he currently has around nine physician liaisons lined up for the schools, and his goal is to have two physician liaisons per school. 

“The majority of schools will need two nurses; one to coordinate daily activities, and another to coordinate testing,” Zack said.

An administrative volunteer corps will also be established at each school. In a post to the Facebook page Islanders Help, page administrator Madalena Lopes made a request on behalf of Chilmark health agent Marina Lent. 

“Each school will have its own testing team consisting of a doctor, a nurse, an EMT, and a nonclinical volunteer. They are looking for volunteers to join these school teams once a week, for about four hours each week. This will be a commitment for the school year, so maybe two volunteers for each school team,” the post reads.

According to the post, those who are interested or have questions can contact Lent at her email, boh@chilmarkma.gov

Ideally, Zack said, using an isolated wing or exit area in each school will allow the test team to be protected and sequestered from the rest of the school population.

“Three people can be stationed inside. Those being tested will be outside, and there could be outdoor kiosks from where the samples are collected,” Zack said. 

If the health and safety task force cannot identify a safe spot to stage testing, Zack said they will be renting portable storage offices, although he doesn’t think that will be necessary.

He noted that the majority of school principals have identified areas for testing.

Students will be tested classroom by classroom, according to Zack, and testing will be done on the same day as sample collection. 

As for students who test positive, Zack said those protocols are yet to be determined. 

“How to handle positive tests is actually not known. How do we keep our schools open by using testing and follow-up protocols?” he asked. “To be honest, there is no protocol established anywhere. We are all kind of making this up as we go along. There isn’t a school system or policy anywhere in the United States that has any real basis and data.”

To close his presentation, Zack stressed that donors who are providing for this major undertaking want to be sure that those administering the program believe in its success.

“How much do you believe in this? Are you willing to put your neck out for it?” Zack asked. “If we can prevent even one death, isn’t that amazing? The money put into preventing even one death, I think that is short money.”

With months of discussion having already taken place around mandatory testing, Zack said, “perfection is the death of a good idea,” and urged that “by the time we get this to look perfect on paper, it is going to be January.”

“I need an answer from you guys. If you say yes, maybe it will take around three weeks to get the first piece of equipment. Can you trust me? If you can trust me, we will get this done,” Zack said.

Although D’Andrea said the health and safety task force came to a general consensus surrounding testing, health agent and task force member Matt Poole said they “really didn’t have that much to chew on,” and that the committee “sort of drifted toward a consensus.”

“We really didn’t have a chance to drill down on some of these important points,” he said.

Poole stressed that this will have to be a “highly choreographed process,” and he isn’t convinced it is “as doable as we would hope.”

AISC member Mike Watts wondered whether a mandatory testing policy would change the required six-foot spacing in Island schools, possibly down to the three-foot minimal requirement outlined by the state.

“We aren’t in the high school because we can’t all fit in there. Will a testing program change that entirely?” he asked.

Zack said that is his hope, and if schools can identify the prevalence of COVID in the school cohort, they can better address health protocols during the school day.

“If we can maintain a low prevalence, we can probably collapse that six-foot barrier, but you have to demonstrate that prevalence through testing,” he said.

AISC member Kim Kirk voiced her concern around students who do not submit to testing, and what will become of their educational experience. 

“Are we going to have to restructure our entire remote learning plan to accommodate those kids?” she asked. D’Andrea responded that those students would enter into the remote learning cohort, or cohort D, and would be taught by the same teacher they would have for in-person learning.

As part of the directive, school districts will bargain with the Martha’s Vineyard Educators Association to establish testing protocols for staff, and the superintendent will be authorized to enter into an agreement with Lifeguard Medical Group — a private concierge medical practice headed by Zack. Lifeguard Medical will outline the scope of work to be completed by schools.