The All-Island School Committee has approved a COVID-19 testing plan that seeks to balance cost and the ability to determine transmission within the school population.
The committee unanimously approved a motion to accept the testing plan, and an additional motion to require students to acquiesce to the testing program. Any students whose families or themselves do not agree to be tested will be educated remotely.
A separate motion was made to require staff and faculty to be tested, but a number of committee members voiced concerns over bargaining issues related to mandating testing for employees.
Although a number of teachers weighed in to say that they overwhelmingly support mandatory testing, the motion was amended to require collective bargaining before the plan is adopted for staff.
This comes as the Island is seeing an uptick in cases, including a case reported Thursday involving a child at Project Headway. Meanwhile, schools have been approving plans to have more students do in-person instruction.
Committee member Alex Salop said the mission of finding an effective and feasible plan that would meet the needs of both students and staff has been difficult. But he said that in conversation with two infectious disease experts, Dr. Mike Soto and Dr. Ben Miller, the health and safety committee of Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVYPS) determined a method of surveillance testing that would work well for the Island.
The testing method, called surveillance testing, uses polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to yield a high-specificity, high-sensitivity test result.
According to Miller, the high sensitivity of PCR testing means a lower number of false negatives, and the higher specificity of the method allows for a lower number of false positives. He said this is essential for a community with a low transmission rate. Additionally, Miller and Soto said, antigen testing in the context of the Island school community yields a higher false-positive rate in asymptomatic populations.
In order to reduce cost and maximize effectiveness, Miller said, pool testing allows 24 individual samples to be sent to a lab and combined, where they are tested as a conglomeration.
Individual PCR testing would cost approximately $75 per test, whereas pool-sample testing would bring the cost of each test down to about $15. “That makes sense in an area with a low rate of illness,” Miller said.
Within 12 to 24 hours, the results of those test pools would be available, and labs can then subdivide those pools into groups of two, and notify subgroups if they are determined to possibly be infected.
“We could then have that subgroup of two individuals follow up with separate PCR testing,” Miller said.
Salop said PCR testing has been used in other school systems, such as Wellesley, Somerville, and Chelsea, and has been used to test NBA players.
Soto said surveillance testing samples a population in the school district on a regular basis to determine if there is an outbreak before more people get sick.
The surveillance plan accepted by the committee conducts 600 tests per testing cycle, which for elementary schools would be biweekly, and for the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School would be weekly.
Miller said that option offers “a good balance between surveillance power and cost-effectiveness based on illness rates in the school population.”
He noted that just because the school district adopts one plan, it doesn’t mean they cannot switch to an alternative plan that includes more or less testing.
The testing plan would cost Island schools around $305,000, assuming there will be 32 weeks of testing. Currently, Island schools are looking at engaging with Mirimus, a clinical laboratory suggested by Miller and Soto, which utilizes saliva pool testing (although a contract has not yet been signed).
Salop said schools have already earmarked $150,000 from their individual budgets, and he is in contact with private benefactors to close the cost difference.
Committee member Skipper Manter said he is concerned the school is adopting a plan without funding being secured first, but committee chair Robert Lionette said Island schools need to deal with the financial piece separately from the approval of the testing plan. He clarified for the audience that testing will not begin until funding is secured.
Committee member Kathryn Shertzer asked how the schools went from initially wanting to test everyone who comes into the building to conducting only 600 tests per cycle.
Salop said if the schools were to test all students and staff, it would be not only prohibitively expensive, but also difficult from a logistical standpoint. “Getting 2,700 people tested every other week is a completely overwhelming task,” Salop said.
Soto added that testing 2,700 people would possibly yield two or three false positives each cycle, which could exceed the number of true positives, and cause confusion.
Other committee members asked whether the overall cost of $305,000 includes expenses associated with implementing the plan, but Salop said that is a question that will have to be answered later on. “There is likely going to be more cost associated with implementation,” he said.