The Newton Public Schools (NPS) School Committee convened over Zoom Tuesday night to discuss moving from PCR surveillance testing to rapid antigen testing within schools to detect COVID-19 among students.
“The antigen test is much more our friend for the goals that we have in controlling the pandemic,” said Ashish Jha, a member of the NPS Medical Advisory Group. “One of the key parts of any pandemic is [that] you have to shift tactics as the virus and the population immunity shifts.”
The school committee met with two members of the Medical Advisory Group: Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, and Dori Zaleznik, an infectious disease specialist. The group makes coronavirus-related recommendations to the school committee.
Zaleznik said NPS needs a continued approach to protecting NPS students from the omicron variant while also maintaining attendance rates.
“While PCR testing is the most sensitive means for detecting any possible COVID infection, it does not provide the answer that you need in both the workplace and schools, and that is who’s contagious,” Zaleznik said. “That’s what rapid antigen testing is going to look for.”
Jha and Zaleznik said antigen testing twice a week will be more effective at detecting who has active COVID-19 infections in the school. According to Jha and Zaleznik, the school’s current PCR surveillance testing plan is less successful at distinguishing if a person is currently contagious with COVID-19 or recently had the virus.
The two doctors also fielded questions from the school committee. One member asked if a five-day quarantine for infected community members is long enough to stop further spread of the virus.
“My argument is, while it is true that about 80 to 85 percent of people stop being contagious after five days from the onset of symptoms, you still have about 15 to 20 percent of people who may be positive on the antigen test,” Jha said. “And wouldn’t we want to keep those people isolating for a little longer?”
Zaleznik said the increase in available antigen tests may open more opportunities for people to get tested more frequently, which could alter quarantine guidelines.
“In all honesty, that recommendation [for a five-day quarantine] was also [created] on the lack of availability of antigen tests,” she said. “If, in fact, the availability becomes much greater, I think some of these recommendations for not doing tests might be modified.”
While Jha and Zaleznik worked to offer reassurance and recommendations to the school committee, Paul Levy, a member of the committee for Ward 6, said changing guidelines in school policy may concern community members.
“I’m concerned that we’re facing two pandemics here,” he said. “One is related to the disease, and we know that scientists are doing their very best to ask the right questions and narrow down answers. The other pandemic, though, is a pandemic of worry, where we as public officials need to do our very best to help our staff and parents feel comfortable in their daily decisions.”
In response, Jha said the board analyzes data before making decisions, and recommended that the school committee make those decisions transparent to the larger community.
“I think the assurance, to the extent that we can offer any assurance in any context, is to say that we really are digesting the data,” Jha said. “Broadly, we are trying our best to get it right. I think we have some absolutely terrific people on this advisory group, and we have a relatively high degree of confidence that the plan we have laid out is good and safe for our kids.”
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