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Weekly COVID-19 Pool Testing To Be Available At All Massachusetts Schools Soon

BOSTON (CBS) -- Weekly COVID-19 pool testing will be available for all schools and districts in the state within the next month, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Friday.

"There's now an overwhelming body of scientific research that shows that in-person learning can be done without spreading the virus, regardless of the community transmission rates," said Baker.

He highlighted the parochial schools in Massachusetts, which opened for in-person learning in August with 30,000 students and 4,000 staff members, and have not been seriously impacted by coronavirus.

"The data around this is clear - that in-person learning is essential to kids' education, developmental, and emotional wellbeing. And we've shown we can control the spread of the virus and classrooms when the right steps are in place," Baker said. "Unfortunately too many kids remain learning remotely, or in complicated hybrid programs."

Secretary of Education James Peyser said pool testing technology has improved and can accurately evaluate more than 20 swabs in a single batch.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders explained the process of COVID pool testing. "At the laboratory, technicians take all of the samples out of the tube and then combine them into a pool and run a single laboratory test to determine whether the pool is positive or negative," she said. "If a pooled test result is negative, then all individuals within that pool are presumed negative, and they remain in school. If the pool test result is positive, then all the individuals in that pool are retested."

Watch Health and Human Service Secretary Marylou Sudders: 

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will pay for the testing during the program's start-up phase. Schools and districts will then be able to purchase more tests.

"Now that the conditions are right and the resources are in place, we are prepared to make a significant investment to get a universal school testing program up and running as soon as possible, in as many communities as possible," Peyser said.

He added, "Nevertheless we all understand the anxiety that many people feel - teachers and parents alike - about returning to classrooms in the context of the current levels of COVID that we're experiencing now this winter."

Pool testing will not be required for in-person learning and the testing is voluntary.

"School districts providing in-person or hybrid learning will be prioritized for testing kits, but schools in remote learning, looking to bring students back to classrooms, can also participate," said DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley.

"Between this and the vaccine that's on the horizon, better days are ahead," Riley said.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association told WBZ-TV the testing is a step in the right direction for two reasons.

"One: the state is paying for the initial round of testing. Two: it actually tests everybody in large batches and gives us quick data to assess the circumstances," said Association President Merrie Najimy.

Watertown Public Schools is one of the first schools to use pool testing. They are now testing 600 kids and 300 staff a week.

"On Wednesday night we have found out that we had four positive pools, so we called 40 students and said you need to isolate until we get a result back. They came back on Thursday morning, yesterday morning. They were all tested. By last night, we knew who the four positive students were. For us, it's making sure our students and staff are safe," Watertown Public Schools Superintendent Deanne Galdston said.

The Department of Public Health reported 7,136 new confirmed coronavirus cases Thursday, a new one day record for the state.

More than 60% of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts are now considered high risk for coronavirus infections, according to the latest data from the state.

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