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North Adams Schools Accepted Into 'Pool Testing' Program

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The school district has been accepted into a pilot program for "pool" testing of students and their teachers for the novel coronavirus.  
 
"It is just another added layer of providing additional mitigation for the safety of our students and our staff as we think about returning to the hybrid model for in person learning," Superintendent Barbara Malkas told the School Committee on Tuesday.
 
Pool testing means mixing samples from a group, such as a classroom, and testing for COVID-19 antigens. A negative test means the entire group is clear; a positive test means that each person in the pool would have to follow up with rapid result testing. 
 
"Within 15 minutes, we would know who the positive individuals are because they would need to isolate and we would need to do our contact tracing," Malkas said. "And we'd have to make sure that anybody else in that particular pool was asymptomatic and therefore clear to resume learning and instruction."
 
This would give the school system some control of real-time data rather than relying on the current community transmission rates, which may not relate to schools. According to state data, schools have not been significant factors in spreading the virus.  
 
"We need to get students and staff back to in-person learning in the hybrid model," the superintendent said. "We would want to keep students and staff in school safely, for a longer period of time, and not be subject to the changes of the data."
 
The district has been reacting to "historical data," she said and has had to rely on parents and staff being forthcoming with regard to exposures and results. 
 
"Actually having real-time data, which I think would allow us to be much more responsive and really maintain our schools as a really very, very safe for children and the adults who work there," said Malkas. 
 
The testing would be by consent and a session is planned to explain the process to parents. Malkas said schools that have implemented the program have found greater participation as time has gone by. 
 
The tests would also be self-administered -- a swab of the nostril -- by staff and students Grades 2 and up. Someone would have to hired to administer to kindergarten and Grade 1.
 
The program is supported by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and, so far, schools in Watertown, Medford and Cambridge have implemented the testing protocol. Malkas said she and nurse leader Lauren Gage attended a webinar with union leaders and decided to complete a DESE survey indicating interest in the program.
 
The school district was approved for the program on Monday and paired with CIC Health, a subsidiary of Cambridge Innovation Center that has been providing testing support for more than 120 schools and operating the mass vaccination site at Fenway Park.
 
Malkas said CIC was selected in collaboration with other North County districts and because North Adams would be able to partner with Berkshire Health Systems, which could help implement protocols and a courier service.
 
Funding is through the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, at least until March 28. After that, the district would have to determine whether it wished to continue with the program at a reduced cost.
 
"The benefit to our district with that is that it's as much as 50 to 70 percent of the cost of implementing a testing program in schools," Malkas said. "So it's a significantly lower cost to implement by working through the state."
 
Stipends for organizational structure (a coordinator, observers, testers) would have to be carried by the district, however, those could be offset by state coronavirus relief funding the district will be receiving. 
 
The estimate is to continue the program past March is $50-$100 a test and about $10,000 for stipends, plus personal protective equipment. A better accounting should be available when the program is ready to be implemented. 
 
The school district currently has a memorandum of understanding with the teachers union that remote learning would kick in if the 14-day average positive rates rise above 3 percent for the city and/or the 15 surrounding communities (as they are at the moment). Switching to a new benchmark using the pool testing program would require negotiations with the union. 
 
As to vaccinations, which will be available to educators in the current Phase 2, Malkas said DESE has been queried as to whether school districts will be able to innoculate staff at once rather than going through appointments. There is no answer on that at this time, she said. 
 
In other business, the committee approved participation in winter and so-called "Fall 2" sports but with several caveats, including that the schools be in the hybrid model and there be a testing component. 

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Letter: Hinkell Family Thanks Community for Support After House Fire

To the Editor:

We would like to thank everybody for their generous support during these tough times for our family. We greatly appreciate all of the donations, prayers, meals, and support that has been sent our way. We feel so blessed to be part of such an amazing community and we honestly couldn't have made it through this past week without all your help. 
 
To the North Adams Fire Department, North Adams Police Department, Northern Berkshire EMS, North Adams DPW, the North Adams Animal Control Officer, and the North Adams Water Department, thank you for your quick responses to our house, saving our dogs, and making sure everyone was OK. 
 
Finally, thank you to Cutting Edge Painting for dropping everything and coming to board up and secure our house and to Thrifty Bundle for immediately cleaning clothes for us to wear.
 
As we continue to move forward, we can't help but to reflect back to how lucky we are to be able to reside in a community that is so willing to help people in need. We are forever grateful and will never forget everything that the community did for us.  We Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Johno, Emily, Connor and Easton Hinkell
North Adams, Mass. 

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