LPS COVID-19 Surveillance Testing Plan – an interview with Dr. Julie Hackett, Superintendent of Lexington Public Schools

Dr. Julie Hackett and a student volunteer assemble testing kits.

Lexington Public Schools recently announced the rollout of a new plan to provide school-based testing for COVID-19 to help stop the spread in our community as a result of asymptomatic cases, adding the community’s growing and evolving body of knowledge into consideration when interpreting COVID-19 data. Teams of staff and volunteers have been working tirelessly to roll-out the plan which began Tuesday, January 12, 2021 and will continue for 8 weeks.

Kim McCormick, LHS PTO President, met virtually with Dr. Hackett to learn more about the plan. Their conversation appears below.

KIM MCCORMICK// Good morning Dr. Hackett, tell me about LPS’s COVID-19 Surveillance Plan
DR. HACKETT// Hi, Kim. We are excited to announce the roll-out of PCR Saliva Pool Testing for some of our staff and students. We know it has been a struggle for many to secure an appointment for COVID-19 testing, so we hope the school-based testing will make life easier for some of our staff and families.

KIM MCCORMICK// PCR Saliva Pool Testing, what does that mean?
DR. HACKETT// LPS entered into a Service Agreement with Mirimus Clinical Labs to conduct PCR Saliva Pool Testing. This testing can identify and isolate asymptomatic carriers of the COVID-19 virus, enhancing the health and safety of those in our school buildings and offices. Based on the efficacy studies conducted to date by Mirimus, pool test protocols detect the existence of the COVID-19 virus, which can be narrowed down to detection at an individual level. The COVID-19 testing protocol I just described is at a fraction of the cost of what it might otherwise be, providing an opportunity for LPS to regularly test a larger school population.

KIM MCCORMICK// Governor Baker just announced free COVID-19 testing for all Massachusetts public schools, how does this affect your plan?
DR. HACKETT// We began the process of developing an LPS COVID-19 Surveillance Testing Plan in December, as referenced in the letter I sent to families on December 23, 2020. On January 8, 2021, Governor Baker announced that there would be free weekly nasal swab testing for all school systems. Our plan includes staggered testing schedules for all LPS staff and all middle and high school students, as PCR saliva tests are more appropriate for these age groups. We plan to take full advantage of the State’s new nasal swab testing by offering it to our elementary school students. We submitted the required paperwork to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and we are in the process of developing an elementary testing plan. Parents have an opportunity to weigh in on the process by accessing the survey we recently shared.

KIM MCCORMICK// Who is eligible to be tested?
DR. HACKETT// Testing is completely optional, although we highly recommend that everyone eligible participate. The tests will be available for all LPS staff, whether remote or hybrid, as well as Lexington High School students in Cohorts A and B Hybrid, and those participating in varsity and junior varsity sports, We also plan to offer testing to Clarke and Diamond students in Cohorts A and B Hybrid. Individuals who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past 90 days are not eligible. Individuals who have COVID-19 symptoms or do not feel well, should not take this test; they should get a diagnostic test following the recommendations and services available at Stop the Spread sites.

KIM MCCORMICK When will testing take place?
DR. HACKETT LPS staff who choose may participate in our pilot during the week of January 11th, and then on a staggered schedule. Students at LHS, Clarke, and Diamond in Cohort A will pick up their kits starting Tuesday Jan. 19th and test every other week for 4 weeks. Students at LHS, Clarke, and Diamond in Cohort B will pick up their kits on Thursday Jan. 21st and test every other week for 3 weeks. The difference in the number of testing times is due to the February break.

KIM McCORMICK// Why is LPS offering PCR Saliva Pool Testing now?
DR. HACKETT// We have been following the Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI) guidance since May 2020. According to HGHI, “Surveillance testing for educators, paraprofessionals, and other staff is recommended in order to reduce the risk of asymptomatic transmission, once the level of community spread has exceeded 20/100,000 daily new cases. LPS recently reached 21/100,000 cases of COVID-19. The time is right to get Surveillance Testing underway in Lexington Public Schools, and we are grateful for our community’s partnership in this critical effort.

KIM MCCORMICK// Will LPS use COVID-19 Surveillance Testing to return to full in-person school?
DR. HACKETT// Surveillance testing means different things to different people in our school community – some want it to be a tool we can use to “go remote,” while others want to use it to make the case for a “full return” to school. I want to be very clear that we are not using LPS Surveillance Testing to determine a particular model of teaching and learning, instead we will follow the advice of the HGHI to ‘use metrics of community spread as general points of information, not on-off switches for closure and opening.’

KIM MCCORMICK// What is this costing the District?
DR. HACKETT// Our Service Agreement with Mirimus is for 8 weeks of testing and costs $229,000, which is equivalent to three or four full-time teaching positions to put the cost into perspective. The District is committed to funding this plan and enacted a budget freeze to ensure that we are able to cover the costs of surveillance testing. Some of our community partners, including the Lexington Education Foundation (LEF), are fundraising to supplement our effort, as many school communities have done. The complex models of teaching and learning developed to keep us safe during the pandemic are more costly. The good news is that new Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds are on the way, which may help to cover some of the costs. If we do not receive additional funding, we will need to continue to make reductions to our current operating budget in order to cover the costs.

KIM MCCORMICK // How can people donate to the LEF fund?
DR. HACKETT//We are greatly appreciative of the LEF and the Lexington community for all the support of our schools, both in terms of their volunteerism and through the generous donations for grants. Individuals may make donations directly to LEF from their website LexEdFoundation.org.

KIM MCCORMICK// Are there volunteer needs and opportunities?
DR. HACKETT// We are so thankful for our partnership with the PTO/As as well as the PTO President’s Council (PPC) for diving into this project and designing and managing the volunteer aspects in conjunction with our Director of School Health Services, Karen Rufo. Community members interested in helping may complete the volunteer form from a link on the LPS website.

KIM MCCORMICK// This is a big undertaking, thank you so much for your leadership.
DR. HACKETT// Thank you, Kim, and I want to be sure that the community knows that so many LPS staff, as well as community volunteers and the School Committee have been instrumental in making this plan not only possible, but also operational. I’d like to specifically thank Karen Rufo, Director of School Health Services and all the LPS nurses and the custodial staff who are essential individuals in the success of the plan. They are truly our local heroes who take risks everyday to help preserve the health and safety of our entire school community and our students.

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