Baker visits Nock-Molin to highlight COVID-19 pooled testing program

MIKE SPRINGER/Staff photoGov. Charlie Baker bumps elbows while greeting Cathy Riccio, director of health services for Newburyport Public Schools, while honoring her on Friday as Massachusetts School Nurse Administrator of the Year for leadership during the pandemic. Baker toured Nock-Molin School to learn about its COVID-19 testing program.

NEWBURYPORT — Among those watching Nock-Molin School students receive a COVID-19 test in the school library Friday was Gov. Charlie Baker, who stopped by for a firsthand look at how a school district conducts the state-driven pooled testing program. 

Newburyport’s middle school is one of about 950 learning institutions conducting pooled testing. In all, about 300,000 students, staff and teachers throughout the state are taking part in the weekly program. Its ultimate goal is to help bring students and teachers back into classrooms as soon as safely possible.

Pooled testing involves mixing several test samples together in a “batch” or “pool” and then testing the pooled sample for the presence of COVID-19. If the sample comes back negative, everyone tested is presumed to be COVID-19 free. 

“This pool testing program which we were here today to take a look at is something that got launched as a first-in-the nation demonstration a few months ago, basically, to add a key tool to school districts and to schools which was the ability to do some sort of pretty consistent, relatively uncomplicated weekly surveillance program around testing,” Baker said.

Joining the governor at the Low Street school were Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday, state Rep. James Kelcourse, R-Amesbury, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley and Secretary of Education James Peyser. 

During the visit, Baker announced that with the “supply dependent,” teachers could start getting vaccinated as soon as this month.

The governor echoed a statement he made a day earlier when he said getting the vaccine into people’s arms was more of a supply issue than a capacity issue, and expressed optimism the federal government would ramp up vaccine distribution soon. 

Baker said any school district that would like to take part in the testing program is welcome.

“We’d love to have everyone in,” Baker said, adding that one of the reasons he visited Newburyport was to highlight the program to other districts contemplating its use. 

The state is paying for the program until April 18. After that date, schools can continue pooled testing by purchasing the tests and any other testing materials, software and support through a statewide contract at their own cost.

“This is really a terrific program,” Baker said. “This is a big part of how we create and build what I would describe as whatever the next normal is going to be here.” 

School Superintendent Sean Gallagher called the pooled testing system “the first step in the right direction of a phased approach” to bring students and staff back in schools before the end of the school year. 

Pool testing, which would give the district daily COVID-19 prevalence data, is expected to increase next week and well into March, Gallagher added. 

“We’re phasing this in so we have success,” he said. “We’re excited for this program.” 

In a lighthearted moment, considering the seriousness of Baker’s visit to the school, the governor was given a Newburyport Clippers face mask just as he walked into the main hallway. He then retreated to the main office, where he swapped a disposable mask for one representing the school district. 

“Now, I am properly dressed,” he said, walking back into the hallway. 

Another bright moment took place during Baker’s roughly 10-minute speech in the school library when he presented the district’s top nurse, Cathy Riccio, a governor’s citation for her service to Newburyport during the pandemic. 

Riccio was recently named Massachusetts School Nurse Administrator of the Year by the Massachusetts School Nurse Organization, an achievement highlighted by Baker before handing her the citation. 

Staff writer Dave Rogers can be reached at drogers@newburyportnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @drogers41008

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