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St. Peter School, Cambridge, provides school-wide COVID testing

Cars line up around St. Peter Church in Cambridge for students to receive COVID tests in September. Pilot photo/courtesy St. Peter School

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CAMBRIDGE ? In addition to all the protocols that have become typical in schools during the pandemic, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and staying in cohorts, St. Peter School has maintained another safety measure: providing an opportunity for weekly coronavirus testing for students and staff members.

Plans for this program began over the summer. St. Peter School reached out to local organizations and institutions of higher education to get the support and resources they would need. The school also established several planning committees made up of staff members and parent experts. One of these committees was made up of parents who work in the medical field, including a professor of immunology from Harvard Medical School.

"We're blessed to be in a city that's kind of the COVID testing capital of the country right now," St. Peter School Principal Patrick Boyden said in a Nov. 17 interview.

They fundraised "aggressively" and sought the help of donors in the effort to keep students and staff healthy. Thanks to the philanthropic support they received, the school was able to get the program off the ground and sponsor students who cannot cover the $50 cost of each test.

The testing program involves the daily participation of three different organizations. Emergency medical technicians from Cataldo Ambulance Service collect the samples. The Broad Institute runs the testing lab and analyzes all the samples. The Cambridge Innovation Center manages logistics and operates the HIPAA-compliant online patient portal, where the school receives the test results.

"We work in close harmony with all three (organizations) and all three work in close harmony with each other. It's a very well-choreographed dance!" Boyden said in an email.

The testing is done on an opt-in basis, in a drive-through set up every Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m. The drive-through takes about five minutes, and the results come back in about 24 hours.

Each week, about 55 to 65 percent of the students come to be tested and about 95 percent of the staff. Boyden said that testing a majority of each class gives an indicator of the group's overall health.

"Our staff and our parents have appreciated it," Boyden said.

So far, only one person in the school community has tested positive for the coronavirus. The case was identified outside of school, and the community quickly arranged for the rest of the individual's grade level to isolate and get tested. Thankfully, Boyden said, all the tests came back negative, and the virus did not spread from there. He said the individual is now healthy.

Boyden said that what helps keep the school safe is the combination of testing with all the other safety protocols.

"Testing is not some silver bullet that prevents COVID from coming into the community, it's just an extra level of security and certainty and something that, I think, when coupled with social distancing and hand hygiene and wearing masks, provides an overall environment that we feel really confident being in," he said.

Boyden said the greatest compliment he has received from parents, teachers, and students is that this year feels "normal," in spite of all the changes that have come with the pandemic.

"The fact that we have established a sense of normalcy is something that I'm really proud of," he said.

He added that it was a testament to the "heroic effort" of the teachers, who have taken on coronavirus-related responsibilities on top of the demands of being a Catholic school teacher.

"Our team here has really risen to the occasion and gone above and beyond to serve our students and to serve our families," Boyden said.

The school is extending its Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks to allow families time to comply with Massachusetts travel orders and get tested before returning to school. St. Peter School will offer testing immediately upon students' return.

In addition to organizing a testing system for its own students and staff, St. Peter School is also helping its neighbor down the road, St. Paul Choir School, to implement a similar testing system.

"The testing opportunity that St. Peter's put together is phenomenal," Thomas Haferd, head of St. Paul Choir School, said in a Nov. 20 interview.

Being a choir school, he said, "has presented its own particular problems" during the pandemic. At a time when churches are not allowing congregational singing, the choir school has had to find ways to allow students to rehearse, perform, and worship in song while minimizing the possibility of spreading the virus.

One of the school's gymnasium rooms was repurposed as a rehearsal room, where students are spaced out and sound equipment broadcasts the choir director's voice.

"It is awkward because choirs build on listening to the person right next to you, but they've done really remarkable work," Haferd said.

The students began singing liturgies in September for the feast of the Holy Spirit, and have continued to sing at daily and Sunday Masses, always while wearing their masks.

The choir school began testing students and staff in mid-October, and has not found any positive cases so far. The school tested all its singers and musicians, both students and professionals, before recording its virtual Christmas concert in mid-November. Students will be required to get tested when they return from their Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations.

Boyden said St. Peter School is open to finding other ways to support and collaborate with other schools in the future.

"This is a show of solidarity between Catholic schools in Cambridge to try to keep our overall school communities healthy and safe and in person. And certainly anything we can do to help other students and teachers safely be in the classrooms, we'll do that," Boyden said.

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