BOSTON — The Baker administration will be providing millions of rapid COVID-19 tests to public schools as the state continues to battle a surge of coronavirus infections.
On Tuesday, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said it will be distributing at-home tests to school districts that opt into the new program. The move, set to begin next week, is meant to compliment ongoing pool testing in schools but can be used as an alternative to the state’s “test and stay” program.
“The current state of the pandemic requires that we adapt our tactics to meet the times,” Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters during a Tuesday briefing. “This new testing program is just the latest way we think we can help keep kids in school.”
Education Commissioner Jeff Riley the shift will allow districts struggling with staffing issues to spend more time identifying symptomatic individuals and other COVID-19 responses. He said schools could use rapid tests as an alternative to “test and stay,” or in conjunction with that program and pool testing.
“This is frankly a game changer,” Riley said during the briefing. “We’ll be able to offer more testing every week than under the current test and stay program.”
Students and staff who participate will receive one kit every two weeks to test themselves. Those who test positive at home will be asked to inform their school of the result, Riley said. Schools will report positive cases to state education officials as part of their regular weekly COVID-19 reporting.
The expanded testing is part of the Baker administration’s plans to distribute 26 million rapid antigen tests over the next three months under a contact with a manufacturing company.
The testing push comes amid a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations following the holiday break, fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant.
Public schools, many of which have been conducting pool testing, have reported a record number of infections among students and staff returning from break.
The state’s latest data shows 48,414 positive COVID-19 cases were reported among students and staff in schools from Jan. 6 to 12.
Last month, the Baker administration distributed 2.1 million rapid at-home tests across the state to 102 hardest-hit communities, including Gloucester, Rockport, Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen, and Salem. The state has also negotiated with drug manufacturers to provide discounted rapid tests to other communities.
At least five state-run COVID-19 testing facilities, including one in Lynn, have been set up to help deal with the increase demand.
The Baker administration has extended a masking requirement for public schools through February and imposed restrictions on hospitals to help them deal with the dual challenges of a flood of COVID-19 patients and chronic staffing shortages.
But Baker has resisted calls from teachers unions and some lawmakers to allow school districts to go back to remote learning. Under the state’s current rules, schools cannot count remote learning days toward the required 180 days a year of in-class instruction.
Baker said data from more than a year of pool testing in about 2,000 school districts “shows that school is an extremely safe place for educators and kids.”
He said roughly 99% of more than 500,000 “test and stay” tests conducted in schools to date have come back negative.
“Clearly, in-school spread is extremely rare and, as we all know, young people are at a much lower risk for getting COVID,” Baker said Tuesday. “Even among a population that this getting tested more often than any other group of people, schools continue to see very small numbers of cases by comparison.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.