By TALIA WIENER
Pooled coronavirus testing in Montclair’s public schools is anticipated to begin Oct. 11, if the Board of Education approves the testing contract, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said in a message to the community Friday, Oct. 1.
The Montclair Board of Education is expected to vote Wednesday night to approve the coronavirus testing contract with consultant Concentric Bioworks, also referred to as Gingko Bioworks.
Gingko will provide testing for 11 weeks commencing on Oct. 7, but there may be an agreement to extend the program, according to the Wednesday board meeting agenda.
The contract totals $287,302, with $19,360 for testing kits, $193,600 for testing services, $10,890 for rapid antigen test kits, $32,670 for diagnostic testing services and $30,782 for program administration.
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Weekly tests for elementary school students will be the priority, along with sixth and seventh graders, some of whom are too young to be vaccinated, Ponds said at the Sept. 20 Board of Education meeting. Pfizer vaccines are available for those 12 and older, but Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are only available to those ages 18 and up.
Older students will follow after that, Ponds said.
In pooled testing, participating students and staff members in a given classroom will self-administer a nasal swab, and all swabs will be placed in a combined container. The technique isn’t used as an individual diagnostic, but to spot coronavirus in a population and to then take further action.
Testing in each classroom will take about 15 minutes the first time, but can be cut down to 10 minutes as students get used to the process, Gingko representative Dan Bram said at the Sept. 20 board meeting.
Results will come in within 24 to 48 hours of the samples arriving at the lab, and they will be entered in an online portal accessible to school administrators, Bram said.
The district is purchasing 726 rapid antigen test kits from Gingko to use for follow-up testing when positive tests are found, according to the Wednesday meeting agenda.
The district still plans to have families and caretakers opt in for student testing, Ponds said at the Sept. 20 meeting.
Test results taking at least 48 hours to get back are “basically worthless,” parent Lani Sommer-Padilla said at that meeting.
“Essentially you’ll have a student positive with COVID in the classroom for two days spreading it before you can confirm who that student is,” Sommer-Padilla said.
Unsatisfied with the district’s testing plans, Sommer-Padilla and other parents have launched outdoor testing sites next to two elementary schools, Hillside School and Nishuane School. The free PCR testing through MedRite will yield results in 24 to 36 hours.
The two pop-up sites tested 54 people on Sept. 30, according to Sommer-Padilla.
Moving forward, group members said they are looking to expand testing to other schools in the district, and possibly offering testing on weekends.
Only the Hillside-adjacent testing site, at the Montclair Inn, will run Thursday, Oct. 7. Pre-registration is recommended, available through the MedRite website, but walk-ups are also welcome.
Gov. Phil Murphy announced in August that all school staff, in private or public schools, will be required to be vaccinated by Oct. 18 or be tested weekly.
In Montclair, staff who choose not to get vaccinated must take tests each week on Tuesday and have results submitted to the district by Friday, Ponds said at the Sept. 20 meeting.
The cost of the tests for staff will most likely fall to the individual staff members, Ponds said. Many insurance providers, including the district’s provider, Aetna, do not cover tests required by employers.
If a staff member refuses to get vaccinated or tested, that person will not be allowed to teach, Ponds said. The district will start pulling from the staff member’s accrued sick and leave time, he said. He did not speak to what would happen once the leave time was used up.