Watertown students will be able to be tested for COVID-19 for free starting the week after Thanksgiving, in an effort to keep schools open for in-person learning and to stop the spread of the virus in the school and broader community.
Galdston told the School Committee about the district’s testing program on Monday, the same night that a piece on the Watertown Public Schools’ COVID-19 testing program (for which she was interviewed) aired on the NBC Nightly News.
“In the 45 minute interview, that was cut to 30 seconds, we spent a lot of time talking about how Watertown has really gone above and beyond to keep our students and our staff safe,” Galdston said. “Here is just another safety net we have for all of our people within our community.”
School Committee member Lily Rayman-Read, who teaches in the Cambridge Public Schools, said the NBC story caught the interest of educators in other communities.
“Since it was on the Nightly News, I have gotten numerous messages from colleagues around the state who said, ‘How did Watertown do it?’ and ‘Oh, my gosh we are so jealous. How are you making it happen?'” Rayman-Read said. “I can say (it is because of ) fantastic leadership — thank you to Dr. Galston and your team — and also a lot of community support and buy in.”
While the testing will be done free of charge for students and staff, School Committee Vice Chair Kendra Foley said it is not “free.”
“It is actually very expensive, and the district is committing a lot of money and the Town of Watertown is committing a lot of Federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act and the District’s Federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency
Relief Fund) grant money. They are doing so because it is very important, so it is being done free for families.”
Testing has already been offered at Watertown Middle School when it was preparing to open for hybrid in early November.
The testing is voluntary, noted Town Council President Mark Sideris.
“Other than continuing to call them, what if a parent refuses to have their child tested? That is the type of thing that people make personal decisions on,” Sideris said. “I am aware, and the community should be aware, we are not going to get the whole community.”
Galdston said acknowledged that some portion of schools will not be tested, but she is confident that other measures will limit the virus’ spread.
“If someone who is asymptomatic comes in, there are enough air purifiers, ventilation, masks,” Galdston said. “That is the point of all the PPE. Just in case someone comes in that is COVID positive, the chances are pretty low for transmission with all the PPE we have. It is a safety net. Ideally we will get as many students as possible, but we are not relying on it.”
Galdston said one other community that has offered student testing, Wellesley, found that about 80 percent of the students were tested.
“Wellesley was the first to do screening and they closed the high school after eight students tested positive,” Galdston said. “If they didn’t do the testing those eight cases could have become 20 or 25 cases.”
After the first week, students will be tested in pools of up to 10 students. If a pool comes back positive, then all the students in that group will be retested within 24 hours, Galdston said, and will have to quarantine until the results come back.
If someone in an elementary school tests positive, then students in that in0-person classroom will have to quarantine. In the middle and high school, those who have to quarantine will be limited to those who were in close contact with the person who tested positive, Galdston said, which is typically within six feet. The difference, she said, is that the older can be trusted to not move around and stay in their spots more than the elementary school students.
The testing for students will come at a time right after some will be gathering with families, some traveling outside the area, for Thanksgiving. During the first week, High School students will be tested on Monday, the elementary school students on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the Middle School on Thursday and Friday.
The swabbing will be done by school nurses or volunteer medical professionals, Galdston said, and will take place at Watertown Middle School for both middle and elementary school students. Students 14 and older can swab themselves, she added.
Galdston encouraged parents and guardians of elementary school students to come with their children the first time they get tested. It will involve a short swab in the nose, she said, not the long one that goes up far into the nasal passage.
“The elementary schools, on first round, I would like the parents to be there,” Galdston said. “I think it is very important to have mom or dad, an aunt or uncle there. If you are 8, you might be more nervous about being swabbed.”
In later weeks, the schedule will be WHS on Mondays and Tuesdays, Hosmer and Lowell elementaries on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Cunniff Elementary on Thursdays and Fridays, and the Middle School on Thursdays and Fridays.