As school districts try to maneuver the challenges associated with the pandemic, some New Hampshire schools have decided to offer COVID-19 surveillance testing as one mitigation technique.
The Nashua and Bedford school districts both announced this week they will be participating in the Safer at School Screening program, which aims to identify asymptomatic individuals and potentially decrease the spread of the virus.
“We will begin Safer at School Screening and testing by the end of the month so students and staff will be able to get tested on a regular basis,” Garth McKinney, interim superintendent in Nashua, told the Nashua Board of Education on Monday.
There are currently five active cases of COVID-19 that have been contributed to transmission within the Nashua school system, according to Bobbie Bagley, director of public health and community services. She said there are no clusters or outbreaks in Nashua schools where masks are required to be worn while inside.
“The numbers have gone down this week,” McKinney said of the COVID-19 cases.
The Safer at School Screening program, known as SASS, is a voluntary program where parents may allow their child to participate in frequent testing.
The school districts will test using antigen nasal swab tests, and because participation will vary, a different sampling of students and staff will likely be tested periodically with the goal that all participants will be tested once monthly.
Any individuals that test positive using the antigen card will obtain a PCR test within 48 hours, according to the program’s guidelines.
Mike Fournier, superintendent for the Bedford School District, said Monday that he also reached out to state officials to register for SASS testing.
The voluntary program will provide an outlet for families to have their children tested — another avenue designed to make the process less complicated, he said.
The testing will be available at all grade levels, and there are four vendors that could be selected to assist Bedford with the program.
Depending on the vendor, PCR testing is typically administered within cohorts, including individual classrooms or individual athletic teams. Most students would administer their own lower nasal swab tests, which would not have individual identification markers.
Instead, each swab would be placed into a larger, joint tube labed for a specific classroom or sports group, although the approach varies depending on the vendor chosen. The pool testing takes about 25 samples at a time, according to Fournier, who said the typical opt-in rate at the start of the program is around 30 percent participation.
If a pool tests positive, individual rapid testing would then be offered to students in that cohort who have permission to participate in the program and results would be available quickly.
“We will see as we get more information,” Fournier told school officials, adding the district will need to decide how frequently testing will take place.
In Bedford, where masks are optional, at least 13 active cases of COVID-19 have been reported at the high school this week, and there were at least 11 cases reported at Memorial Elementary School earlier this month, prompting temporary universal masking at that building.