NEWBURYPORT — Scores of faculty and staff members at the city's public schools underwent baseline COVID-19 testing Wednesday — the first step in a larger effort to keep in-person learning going. 

District officials and medical personnel are working with Cataldo Ambulance Service, CIC Health, the Board of Health and the mayor's office to conduct the testing program.

The baseline testing gives medical staff data points with which to work. The district will conduct pool testing on small groups, such as a cohort of students or a department at a school.

Pool testing, which involves putting up to 10 swabs in one vial to be tested at once, is more cost-effective. It can be done at random to help officials make decisions regarding COVID-19 protocol.

Superintendent Sean Gallagher did not yet have the exact numbers for how many faculty and staff were tested Wednesday, but he said it was more than 70% of teachers, support staff and district employees. 

With faculty and staff testing now established, officials hope to initiate COVID-19 testing for students soon.

The testing was voluntary. Some staff members who chose not to get tested include those who work in medical fields and may have already been vaccinated, Gallagher explained. 

The superintendent said this testing will allow officials to understand how prevalent COVID-19 exposure may be in the schools.

The district, which went fully remote for the two weeks following the holiday break as a precaution, will return to a hybrid learning model Tuesday.

"If we have low prevalence within the school system, then we can continue with our in-person learning model," Gallagher said of the pool testing goal. "If, all of a sudden, we had a higher prevalence within the schools, then we would make informed decisions with that."

Overall, Gallagher said it "just adds another layer of health and safety protocols for us" until school personnel can receive the COVID-19 vaccine as part of Phase 2 of the vaccination rollout in the state.

State officials predict that Phase 2 of vaccinations will occur between the end of February and the end of April.

In terms of cost, Gallagher said it ranges, but each test is about $35 to $50 and takes three to five minutes to administer.

The city still has about $600,000 from the CARES Act, which it has through the end of the year to use. Officials still need to use it for other expenses such as paying the Remote Learning Academy teachers.

The school district recently launched a COVID-19 data tracker on its website, which can be found at https://datastudio.google.com/reporting/9458f1ad-43cd-4418-99cb-7ad540cda857/page/dmbiB.

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