It has been a long year for New Mexico’s students, teachers, and families as we have all done our best to navigate the unfamiliar waters of a global pandemic. Finally, there is a light at the end of the tunnel — New Mexico Secretary of Education Ryan Stewart recently announced that schools statewide will resume in-class instruction by April 5.
Now the question shifts from when students and teachers will return to the classroom to how to best protect their health and safety. The New Mexico Department of Education is leaving it to local districts to determine an exact timeline for reopening schools safely, and one thing is certain — it will require a thoughtful, strategic approach.
That approach must include routine testing of student populations to monitor any outbreaks and address them as soon as possible. However, for many parents, taking their children in for regular COVID-19 tests simply isn’t practical. New Mexico schools should look to a model called pooled testing that is working well for students, teachers and families in Massachusetts, Maryland and other states.
This approach would allow entire classrooms to take self-swab COVID-19 tests, collect swabs into one sample and have that sample tested. By using only one test on a group of individual swabs, pooled testing allows schools to determine accurate, population-level data on student positivity rates.
Essentially, if a classroom’s test comes back negative, then we know all is well and there is no need for additional action. However, if a classroom’s test comes back positive, then schools will provide additional guidance in order to determine which student or students had a positive result, all while keeping such information private.
Pooled testing on a weekly basis will help New Mexico educators better understand the prevalence of COVID-19, empowering teachers and reassuring families. This kind of routine asymptomatic testing has been found to be extremely effective. It is the same approach that allowed NBA teams to overcome COVID-19 and get back on the courts.
Moreover, pooled testing for COVID-19 provides a more efficient, cost-effective way to test students en masse, providing financial relief for families who may otherwise have to pay top dollar for testing. According to estimates, testing costs can drop to between $6 and $7.50 per student per week when using this approach.
This approach is already working well in Massachusetts, where the state government has partnered with private companies to implement a statewide weekly pooled testing program for students. Massachusetts students have reported that the process is easy, while educators have noted a boost in morale among students as well as teachers, faculty, and parents. Nationwide, hundreds of schools are working to develop similar programs.
As New Mexico schools and educators work to meet the new April 5 deadline of resuming in-person classes, pooled testing should be a central pillar of any responsible re-opening plan. By leveraging this innovative approach to COVID-19 testing, we can keep our kids safe and healthy while allowing them to return to the school environment they so desperately need.
(Rep. Alonzo Baldonado is a member of the New Mexico House of Representatives, representing the 8th district.)