Expert Advisory Panel 4 discusses COVID-19 testing plans for schools


Luca Kelley Nielsen

THe Expert Advisory Panel 4 met on June 20 to discuss different plans for COVID-19 testing for when schools re-open in September.

Members of Expert Advisory Panel 4: Public Health, Safety and Logistics convened virtually at 3 p.m. on Friday, June 19 to discuss possible ways that students and teachers could be tested for COVID-19 if classes in Brookline Public Schools (BPS) were to meet in person during the 2020-21 school year.

Expert Advisory Panel 4 primarily focuses on the health, safety and financial impacts for the fall semester. This was their second meeting discussing the potential issues they may encounter when devising a plan for the 2020-21 school year.

Tricia Laham, Coordinator of School Health Services for BPS, expressed her concerns for reentering schools too early.

“If we have the means to test, and we find not that many people have contracted COVID-19, that does not conclude it is completely safe to reenter school because school is a breeding ground for the virus,” Laham said.

Laham then described how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have found that most children are resilient to COVID-19, and therefore the district should prioritize the safety of the adults in the buildings.

Dr. Nira Pollock, Associate Medical Director of the Infectious Diseases Diagnostic Laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital, presented a slide presentation talking about the testing facilities and logistics for the fall if all schools were to reopen. At the panel’s previous meeting, they considered many options for what testing facilities should look like and how they should operate.

Pollock suggested the town create a website dedicated to checking symptoms of concerned individuals and directing them to the nearest testing facility. Pollock mentioned that there are many labs available to the district that could function as temporary testing facilities.

“We could either create our own testing facilities or use existing ones that could be modified based on the current circumstances,” Pollock said. “I think it is unnecessary to build new ones because we have many resources at our disposal and many corporations and labs committed to helping their communities.”

Pollock emphasized that these facilities are widely available and increasing their daily capacities will be essential when estimating the demand of the community for testing.

“Some existing facilities that could be available to us include Partners Urgent Care in Brookline, Massachusetts General Hospital and other hospitals or urgent care centers,” Pollock said. “We also want to extend our capacity from a current 35,000 tests per day to up to 100,000, obviously depending on the demand in the community.”

Next on Pollock’s presentation to the panel were three possible strategies for COVID-19 testing in schools.

The first scenario Pollock presented outlined the easiest, but most ineffective, option where students and educators would have the option to be tested without any requirements or pressure from the district.

“Individuals would have the option to be tested. This means that not all students or teachers would have available primary care physicians and could not visit them, so we would have to be cautious as a community for observing individuals with potential systems of COVID-19,” Pollock said.

Pollock’s second proposed scenario involved implementing more frequent testing and making strong recommendations, if not laws, for students and educators to receive weekly testing. Pollock mentioned how the district would require more testing facilities, seeing there would be an influx of students and educators that require testing.

“In this scenario, more people would be tested to prevent the spread of the virus. I would have to coordinate again with the Department of Health and school nurses,” Pollock said. “I really prefer this scenario over the previous one because this ensures the constant testing and safety of everyone in the building.”

The final scenario Pollock presented was testing everyone in the building on a weekly basis, even if they are not showing major symptoms of COVID-19. This solution would be the safest out of the three proposed ideas, but will come with some substantial financial repercussions.

“We would be testing everyone weekly, even if they are asymptomatic,” Pollock said. “This would be the optimal solution, but as you may already know, could come with some problems and financial consequences for the town.”

After the presentation concluded, other speakers voiced their opinions and posed their questions to the rest of the panel.

Erik Von Hahn, Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician for the Tufts University School of Medicine, expressed his recent opinions on how Brookline should be careful not to normalize students to the virus and to maintain appropriate safety precautions.

“We should try not to create a false sense of security because if students get tested once per week and are negative for COVID-19, we still want to prioritize social distancing and keep safety precautions for everyone in the classroom and lunchroom environment,” Von Hahn said.

The discussion concluded with Pollock mentioning how the Massachusetts Department of Health (DPH) could intervene during the summer months and help the district form their facilities when the time comes.

“The state itself could potentially run their own testing facilities, and make it much easier, but for now, that is really unknown,” Pollock said.