Surveillance testing underway at Island schools

Take-home kits are user-friendly and require minimal contact for pickup and dropoff. 

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The Mirimus saliva tests are taken home by students and staff and then returned to be sent back to the lab for analysis. — Lucas Thors

Updated Jan. 13

Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) are testing students and staff on a regular basis, using a minimally invasive saliva test they can administer at home.

The tests, provided by Mirimus Clinical Labs, come in the form of small test tubes that are distributed to students during their homerooms, which are currently static due to the arranging of students in cohorts. 

The first week of testing, down-Island school staff began picking up their test kits on Monday, and up-Island staff received theirs on Wednesday. Both groups returned their tests the following day to be sent away for analysis. 

Instead of testing the entire student and staff population, surveillance testing tests certain samples of the population in a way that allows health officials and school administration to make inferences and deal with infection as efficiently as possible. This saves schools money by allowing them to buy fewer test kits, and provides a snapshot of the overall school population in regard to COVID. This week alone, more than 900 tests were distributed to staff and students. 

The pool-sampling method recommended by health professionals to Island schools also takes samples and sends them to Mirimus, where they are processed and analyzed together, whereas having samples analyzed individually would be prohibitively expensive.

Modeled on a program used in the Wellesley public schools, the program was formulated by the school health and safety task force, with guidance from health experts.

At the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, students streamed through the front entrance and waited in an orderly fashion to return their tests.

The collection table was set up near the school bus entrance, in a sequestered corner of the building. 

Molly Houghton, project manager for the school testing program, said things have been going smoothly with distribution and collection so far, although the schedule “is really changing on a daily basis” as schools try to accommodate the varied schedules of both the student and staff bodies. 

On the question of how any positive test results would be reported to the general public, Houghton referred The Times to Superintendent Matt D’Andrea, who said if there are any positive tests, the concerned individuals and their families will be notified, whether it’s a staff member or a student. “As soon as those individuals are notified, I will be sending an email out to the community saying we received the results from this week’s tests, and anyone who was positive has been notified,” D’Andrea said, and added that those figures are available on the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools website, and will be updated weekly (following the end of the test cycle).

As part of the notification protocols, once Island schools receive any positive results, the board of health agents from the town in which those infected individuals reside will also be notified.

If a student or staff member receives a positive test result, D’Andrea said, the first step is to identify, through contact tracing, how they contracted the virus.

“The key is, Are we seeing school spread? Are we seeing student to student, staff to student, in school?” D’Andrea said. “If we are able to identify in-school spread, then we need to take steps to rectify that.”

Potential measures could, according to D’Andrea, include changing some of the health safety measures that are already in place in schools, or temporarily transitioning to remote learning for a particular class, grade, or “even a school, if we begin to see spread through all grades.”

The hybrid model implemented by Island schools allows for a relatively simple transition into entirely remote education, although the goal of schools has consistently been to provide the highest level of education possible by keeping kids in person, so long as it’s safe to do so. 

But on Tuesday, the Island boards of health reported the school had administered 538 tests and all of those tests have come back negative. Data on the public schools tests will be updated every Monday.

In a Jan. 7 letter to parents, D’Andrea wrote that families would only be notified if a student tests positive. “If you do not hear from the school district, you can assume that your child tested negative,” he wrote.

Houghton said that if all things go according to plan, schools will continue to distribute test kits to students on Mondays and Wednesdays, and will return them on Tuesdays and Thursdays, depending on the school.

Another time slot has been added on Tuesday evenings, from 3:45 pm to 6 pm, in order to accommodate volume and people’s schedules.

With the first days of test distribution and collection for students checked off, Houghton said she thinks the process has been executed well, thanks to hard work of volunteers and administrators. “So far it has been going pretty well; there have obviously been a few hiccups because we are learning every day and it’s all new, but overall there has been really great volunteer and staff support at all the schools,” Houghton said.

Students, families, or staff with questions about specific pickup and drop-off times can reach out to individual schools for more information.

Updated to include more details from the superintendent.