How Pooled COVID-19 Testing Helped This School District Reopen

Q&A with Dr. Meg Dussault, Acting Superintendent of Sharon Public Schools in Massachusetts

February 03, 2021

Even amid the vaccine rollout, cases of COVID-19 continue to spike across the United States. It’s essential that communities have a way to reopen schools and keep them open while we wait for widespread vaccine distribution. That’s why Ginkgo aims to provide easy, affordable pooled testing to K-12 schools across the country.

We’re collaborating with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) to offer pooled COVID-19 testing services to public K-12 schools in Massachusetts. The first phase of this initiative will provide state-sponsored weekly pooled testing to students, teachers, and staff.

To get a closer look at how pooled testing works within schools and the impact it’s had on surrounding communities, we spoke with Dr. Meg Dussault, Acting Superintendent of Sharon Public Schools in Massachusetts, which has been participating in Concentric by Ginkgo’s pooled testing program since our pilot. 

Sharon Public Schools have reopened with a hybrid remote/in-person learning model. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during the reopening process?

One of the biggest challenges was our lack of knowledge about the virus in the early days. We had no real data or evidence around whether COVID-19 was being spread within schools or how to keep our students and staff safe. Now we know that mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing are our best defense

Now our challenge is managing all of the different concerns, and keeping a large group of people safe who have different needs and priorities. Parents are concerned about the loss of education for their children. Students are concerned about the loss of social interaction and important experiences. Teachers are concerned about keeping themselves and their families safe. These are all legitimate fears we’re trying to manage. On top of this, we have the obvious challenge that none of us are public health officials. 

What role has testing played in easing some of those concerns and getting kids back in the classroom safely?

Testing has been essential because it arms us with real data and helps us make informed decisions. A lot of the fear has fallen away, because we’re not finding a large number of COVID-19 positive groups in our school population. Testing has provided evidence that we can keep the spread of COVID-19 under control. If there is a positive case, we’ll be able to identify it and prevent it from spreading. 

It’s also had a huge emotional impact. Our staff and community volunteers feel like they’re taking action to help. We’re participating in this together, and that brings a lot of pride. Every day that we have testing, I get a message of gratitude from someone who is so glad that we’re doing this. 

How does pooled testing work day-to-day within Sharon Public Schools? What has the reaction been from parents, teachers and students?

We receive a package from Ginkgo with all of the testing materials we need. Families can opt their children into the pooled testing, and teachers and staff can opt themselves in. It’s all by choice. Everyone involved in the testing process has an assigned day and location. At the middle school, for example, it’s set up in the cafeteria. Kids come in through one door, self-swab, and follow a set path toward the other exit. Even our kindergarteners are participating and doing the self-swabs. In fact, they’re better at it than some of the adults we have participating, because younger children are so good at following directions! 

Our school district is in a hybrid model right now, with four different cohorts of students who come to school on different days. If we test cohort A on a Monday, we’ll be able to know if there’s a positive test result before they come back in on Thursday. We can take steps to identify the case and limit exposure. We have a plan in place to react quickly and prevent further spread if that does happen. 

What advice do you have for other school districts implementing a pooled testing program?

There were certainly hurdles and logistical difficulties. But every day it gets easier.

My biggest advice is to communicate often with the community. Their buy-in and support is so important. We’ve learned that the more information you can provide to the community, the more they’ll understand what they’re opting into. We made a demonstration video to show how the testing process works and how easy it is to self-swab. We use a weekly newsletter to keep everyone informed and articulate what the process is if someone does test positive. 

What impact has school reopening had on students, parents and teachers in your community?

I strongly believe that going to school is a lifeline for students. The students who are coming to school are smiling, they’re adapting, they’re getting so much out of it. Keeping our schools open is essential to everyone’s mental health. Not just for the students, but for parents who are trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy. Even our teachers who see coming back to school as a burden are saying, “At least I have a reason to get out of bed every day.” We have to do everything we can to keep schools open safely.