Safer Teachers, Safer Students:
Back to School Pilot Testing Program FAQs
The following is a list of frequently asked questions and answers about the viral testing pilot program
How did the idea for the pilot program come about?
The program was spearheaded by a group of medical professionals and scientists who wanted to address concerns expressed by teachers and parents about the safety of returning to school buildings. This Scientific Advisory Group includes infectious disease specialists and epidemiologists from Boston's best hospitals. This group has confidence that the measures being implemented to ensure a safe return to school in Wellesley will be effective. However, without the data to support this, concerns remain for both staff and students. Thus, this Scientific Advisory Group believes that rapid-result (<24 hours) testing is crucial to providing the necessary reassurances for a safe return to school. For a detailed explanation of the scientific rationale for a viral testing program, please read the Scientific Advisory Group's overview.
What are the proposed components of the pilot program?
Ensuring a path for immediate testing for anyone with symptoms
A one-time test for all students and staff prior to the beginning of school
Weekly assurance testing of staff to monitor for asymptomatic cases
Weekly assurance testing of WPS students to monitor for asymptomatic cases
Surveys to parents and staff about how the program is impacting their perceptions of safety
What are the benefits of the pilot program?
The benefits of the pilot program are:
(1) Immediate identification of students or staff infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), allowing for rapid isolation of individuals before symptoms appear, which would lessen the chance that the infection spreads in the community.
(2) Less time in quarantine for students or staff who have COVID-like symptoms but who may just have allergies, a cold, or the flu.
(3) Increased confidence for staff and parents in the safety of in-person learning.
(4) Data that shows that our safety measures are working, which could allow for WPS to continue in-person learning for as long as possible, even if numbers in MA go up.
(5) A possible pathway to returning to in-person learning five days a week. While this pilot program would not change WPS’s initial plans to implement a hybrid model of learning, low infection rates in our community combined with a successful testing program could open the door to revisiting full-time in-person learning.
What are the goals of the pilot program?
The goals of the pilot program are:
(1) Outbreak Prevention: Ability to prevent asymptomatic viral spread
(2) Reducing Fear and Anxiety: Ensuring essentially zero cases are within our schools
(3) Learning: Developing best practices for delivering a testing program in schools
(4) Maximizing Opportunity for In-Person Learning: Leveraging data to support decision-making without compromising safety
When and where will testing occur? Will it interfere with learning in school?
The logistics are not yet finalized. However, from what we know so far, testing will likely occur outside of school hours so as not to interfere with learning. All students and staff who wish to return to in-person learning would likely register for testing appointments prior to the beginning of school. For students and staff who do not reside in Wellesley, accommodations will be made so as to minimize any need for additional commuting from other areas.
What kind of test will be used and how accurate is it? How will it be performed?
Testing for the pilot program would begin with a highly sensitive PCR-based test for which results would be returned in less than 24 hours. The performance of PCR-based molecular tests is quite high, with sensitivity and specificity estimated to be 99% or greater. The test would be performed using a painless swab in the nostril called an anterior nares swab test (not the often-painful swab that enters deep into the nasal cavity). A medical professional will perform the swab for all students under the age of 18. Staff will perform the swab themselves under the supervision of a medical professional. As new technologies are developed, we would be in a good position to implement them after the pilot period, potentially at lower costs. Note that the goal of the testing task force has been to identify the most cost-effective option for testing without sacrificing in the accuracy of the test. For more information on the Scientific Advisory Committee's advice regarding the use of cheaper, rapid tests, please read the FAQ below.
How will results be reported?
We expect results will be automatically reported (via text or other electronic means) to parents within 24 hours. In the event of a positive case, the Wellesley Board of Health will proceed under mandated contact tracing guidelines.
What about consent and management of personal information?
All participants will need to consent to their participation in the program and all personal information will be managed through HIPAA-compliant systems and processes.
Does my child have to participate in this program to attend in-person school?
While the testing program is not mandatory, it is highly encouraged. Testing will allow asymptomatic cases to be discovered earlier, thereby helping to reduce the possibility of outbreaks and allowing in-person school to continue longer than without testing.
How will the surveillance portion of the program work? Who will be tested?
A key goal of the pilot program is to provide surveillance data to eliminate the possibility of outbreaks in schools. Achieving this goal produces a public health benefit for all, including the Wellesley community as a whole. In most cases, testing of an entire population is not necessary in order to achieve public health and safety goals. The Scientific Advisory Committee for this initiative will be providing guidance for how surveillance should be conducted and what sampling approach is optimal from a scientific and community safety perspective.
What happens if school transitions to a fully-remote model?
It is our expectation that testing would continue even when school is functioning in a fully remote capacity. Testing will allow the Wellesley Board of Health to monitor active cases in town and allow school to return to in-person learning as soon as it is considered safe to do so. Furthermore, as needs evolve, funds contributed to the COVID-19 Innovation Fund may be used to support any requirements related to the safe operation of schools. This would apply to optimization of remote learning if relevant.
What is the multi-community collaboration team?
This collaboration includes a team of medical professionals, scientists, and superintendents of schools across diverse communities in MA (Chelsea, Revere, Watertown, Brookline, Wellesley) who are working to implement a 3-month pilot program of weekly COVID testing in our public schools. In addition to sharing learnings with each other, this coalition of communities believes that access to testing should be universal and is working together to advocate for communities that are hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. This collaboration does not yet represent a formal agreement between towns or municipalities. It is a learning community of scientists and educational professionals from diverse communities.
What is WEF's role in the program?
WEF partners with Wellesley Public Schools to provide grants that will fund important and innovative initiatives for the district. Given that the cost to implement this program is outside of the WPS budget, WEF has offered to help finance this initiative through donations from the Wellesley community. Donations to the WEF COVID-19 Innovation Fund will be directed toward this program and will be fully tax-deductible. WEF is not tasked with delivering any of the operational or scientific components of the program.
How will testing be funded and how will my donation to WEF be used?
Any funds contributed to the WEF COVID-19 Innovation Fund will support the pilot testing program in Wellesley only. Funds contributed to WEF are not for the use of other communities.
Based on advice from the testing task force's Scientific Advisory Committee, components of the program are being prioritized for funding by WPS as follows:
(1) Ensuring a path toward immediate testing for symptomatic individuals (covered by insurance)
(2) One-time testing for all students and staff prior to returning to buildings
(3) Weekly assurance testing for teachers and staff
(4) Weekly testing for students*
*Given the current low rate of infection within our community, the testing task force’s Scientific Advisory Committee does not believe that broader surveillance of students is warranted until this rate reaches 3%, and thus, this component is not on WPS’s list of immediate priorities. However, it is important to note that with the implementation of the initial testing infrastructure, WPS will be well positioned to expand to broader surveillance of students once this becomes a necessity – likely at a much lower cost, as newer, cheaper testing options continue to emerge in the marketplace. For an overview of the Scientific Advisory Committee's recommendations on prioritization of testing please refer to page 15 of the following document.
This program is being entirely privately funded (meaning that the school will not be charging activity fees), and the program charter calls for providing access to testing to all students, regardless of financial means. Thus, our hope is that the community as a whole will contribute enough funds to make this program a reality in Wellesley. There is no minimum donation or expected donation. Those who wish to contribute to the program should donate any amount that is meaningful to their family. Additionally, members of the multi-community collaboration are advocating for state and private funding for Chelsea and Revere such that similar programs can be implemented equitably in those communities.
What is the cost of the pilot program?
The cost to implement all components of this pilot program was originally estimated to be $1.5 million, though members of the testing task force have continued to evaluate various paths for implementing the proposed pilot program, both with respect to the potential viability of lower-cost options, and with respect to what components of the program the scientific advisory committee believes are most valuable and worthy of immediate implementation.
What about the newer, cheaper, rapid testing options?
The goal of the testing task force has been to identify the most cost-effective option for testing without sacrificing in the accuracy of the test. The Scientific Advisory Committee for the pilot testing program has addressed the question on the use of cheaper, rapid tests as follows: The FDA just granted emergency-use authorization of a rapid “antigen test” from Abbot and the US government agreed to invest nearly a billion dollars in making these tests available. The test is reported to cost $5 with a turnaround time of 15 minutes. As these tests become widely available, rapid tests will likely transform viral testing in K-12 schools. However, these rapid tests are not available today – there is even an X-Prize for the development of rapid tests. Thus, the choice today is to wait for these cheaper tests – which is likely months away – or start with more expensive molecular tests.
The upside of starting with more expensive molecular tests today, especially in the form of a pilot program, is that the basic operational infrastructure of testing, collecting results, returning data to individuals and schools, and decision-making based on results is very similar between antigen tests (results in minutes) and molecular tests (results in <24-hours). That is, the operational issues can be ironed out with molecular tests and then transitioned to rapid antigen tests once available.