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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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Clarksburg Town Meeting to Decide CPA Adoption, Spending Articles

CLARKSBURG, Mass. — Voters will decide spending items and if the town should adopt the Community Preservation Act at Wednesday's town meeting. 
 
Voters will also decide whether to extend the terms for town moderator and tree warden from one year to three years.
 
The annual town meeting will take place at 6 p.m. in the gym at Clarksburg School. The warrant can be found here.
 
The town operating budget is $1,767,759, down $113,995 largely because of debt falling off. Major increases include insurance, utilities and supplies; the addition of a full-time laborer in the Department of Public Works and an additional eight hours a week for the accountant.
 
The school budget is at $2,967,609, up $129,192 or 4 percent over this year. Town officials had urged the school to cut back more but in a joint meeting last week agreed to dip into free cash to keep the prekindergarten for 4-year-olds free. 
 
Clarksburg's assessment to the Northern Berkshire Vocational School District is $363,220; the figure is based on the percentage of students enrolled at McCann Technical School. 
 
There are a number of spending articles for the $571,000 in free cash the town had certified earlier this year. The high number is over several years because the town had fallen behind on filings with the state. 
 
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