COVID-19 Testing Facilitates In-Person Learning in Cambridge

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Josie Dickman

Pictured: COVID-19 testing site outside CRLS.

Margaret Unger, Contributing Writer

On March 1st, 2021, almost a year after Cambridge Public Schools (CPS) transitioned to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of students returned to CRLS part-time as part of a district-wide expansion of in-person learning. This decision was not taken lightly: the district recognized that many students and families would prefer in-person learning for a myriad of reasons, and consulted with scientific advisors to ensure the safety of in-person learning during the pandemic. In addition to capacity limits and personal safety measures such as masking and social distancing, Cambridge is using COVID-19 testing to prevent outbreaks among in-person students.

For months, Cambridge took strides to ensure testing would be in place for the expansion of in-person learning. CRLS student Nuriel Vera-Degraff ’22, a student representative to the School Committee, explained how the “School Committee and the Superintendent and his cabinet worked with various public health officials (from the Cambridge Health Alliance and from within CPS), as well as a scientific advisory board” to design these plans, which differ between grade levels. Students of all grades will be offered a COVID-19 test if they display symptoms of the virus while at school and their parent or guardian consents to testing. Additionally, elementary schoolers can participate in pooled testing weekly, where the samples of all the students in a classroom are compiled in one batch. If the pooled sample is negative, all of the students are presumed negative; but, if the test comes back positive, then each student is tested individually using a rapid test to identify the positive case.

While COVID-19 testing is not mandatory at any grade level, parents and guardians are encouraged to consent to it.”

Most in-person learners in grades 6-12 are divided into cohorts—groups of students that alternate times in-person to allow for adequate distancing in the classroom. They will be offered individual testing during the shifts their cohort is in-person: once a week for middle schoolers and twice a week for CRLS students. As with elementary schoolers, this testing will take place during the school day. In addition, a pre-test was offered for CRLS students the Wednesday before their cohort returned to school. While COVID-19 testing is not mandatory at any grade level, parents and guardians are encouraged to consent to it. 

The COVID-19 test is quick, painless, and, with the exception of Cambridge’s youngest students, self-administered. CRLS student Birikti Kahsai ’23 described the testing process as “better than expected,” adding, “[it] went really quickly … the only inconvenience was probably waiting in line for testing.” Yet, during the March 2nd School Committee meeting, Tracy Rose-Tynes, Interim Associate Chief of Clinical Services for the Cambridge Public Health Department and Nurse Manager for School Health Services, noted that “[schools] do not have the amount of consents necessary to really test all of the students throughout the district … When we can get that in place, we will be able to test a greater number of students week-by-week.” Schools are working to contact families who have not yet consented to COVID-19 testing and urging them to do so. Further, several messages have been sent to the CPS community with information on how to consent to testing online.

According to CPS’s COVID-19 Data Dashboard, six positive results in students were identified through on-site surveillance testing as of March 12th, 2021. These results are used to inform contact tracing efforts and quarantine decisions in collaboration with the Cambridge Health Alliance. 

Cambridge hopes that participation in testing, as well as adherence to established safety protocols, will allow the return to in-person learning to be as smooth as possible. As Dr. Lisa Dobberteen, member of the COVID-19 Safety, Health, and Facilities Working Group, said in the March 2nd School Committee meeting, “This is the way we can keep your kids safe, we can keep your family safe, we can keep the staff safe, it’s in everyone’s best interest … to be tested.”