By Staff

BOSTON (CBS) – Massachusetts will start making weekly at-home COVID tests available for students and staff at schools across the state later this month.

The tests will come from the 26 million rapid at-home COVID tests coming to Massachusetts over next three months, according to a joint announcement Tuesday from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Public Health.

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Starting this week, schools can sign up to get the at-home rapid antigen tests. Participating students and staff will use them once a week.

Schools that join the program will receive tests during the week of January 24. They’ll get tests for students whose families opt-in during the week of January 31.

“We believe here in Massachusetts we have the tools to keep schools safe and open and will continue to work with superintendents and local officials and school staff to do what we need to do to make sure that school continues to be a safe place for in-school, in-person learning,” Gov. Charlie Baker said at a news conference Tuesday.

The tests will be sent directly to school districts. Each kit contains two tests. Students and staff will get one kit every two weeks to test themselves. Families will have to let their school know if they want the tests sent home with students. Anyone who then tests positive will have to inform their school of the result. All positive cases will be reported to DESE for the weekly COVID reporting.

If a school takes part in this new at-home testing option, they can stop contact tracing and Test and Stay. However, schools must keep going with symptomatic and pool testing.

Westport Community Schools Superintendent Thomas Aubin has decided to opt-in to the program, saying it will alleviate the burden on school nurses stretched thin since the start of the pandemic. However, he says it won’t come without challenges.

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“Parents and families aren’t medical people so we need to provide them with the information so that the tests they do administer are done accurately so we can get an accurate report back,” Aubin said.

Salem Schools Superintendent Steve Zrike says they’re debating whether to opt-in, but believes the more testing, the better. “Our staff is struggling to have access to tests and they’re frontline workers,” Zrike said. “We want to make sure they have access.”

Baker said about 500,000 students have been tested as close contacts through the Test and Stay program, and about 99% came back negative. The governor added that other states have found similar data.

“The data from our test-and-stay program confirms without a doubt that in-school transmission is extremely rare, far more rare than transmission that is happening outside of school,” Baker said. “[Test and Stay has] been massively successful in avoiding days lost at home but the current state of the pandemic requires that we adapt our effects to meet the times.”

“This new at-home testing program is frankly a game changer,” said DESE Commissioner Jeff Riley. “Providing this option for at-home rapid testing will allow school nurses to spend more time identifying symptomatic individuals and focus their efforts on other aspects of COVID-19 management in our schools.”

Laura Fitton has two kids at Milton High School and says she would like to see students go home with rapid tests. “It would be a huge relief to have the state doing a bit more,” she said.

There were 48,414 coronavirus cases among students and staff in Massachusetts schools between January 6 and January 12. It’s the most reported cases for students and staff in a single week.

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“The reality is we know that the best place for kids is in school and we want to do everything we can to make sure that kids can stay in school but also keep them as safe as possible,” Riley said. Staff