Guard uniforms give some Amherst school officials pause on pooled testing

  • Gov. Charlie Baker tours a pooled COVID-19 testing program during a visit to the Nock-Molin Middle School in Newburyport, Feb. 25. BOSTON HERALD/FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/14/2021 8:28:21 PM

AMHERST — Members of the National Guard could be coming to public school campuses in Amherst to assist a private contractor in handling pooled testing for COVID-19, but school officials are expressing concerns that uniformed service members in the schools could be traumatic for some students in the district.

Even though getting the pooled testing program underway has been challenging, and the governor is offering the services of up to 200 National Guard personnel across the state, Amherst is not going to participate right away, largely out of concern that Guard members would be wearing military fatigues.

“I don’t know if I’m comfortable with greenlighting this immediately,” Amherst representative Peter Demling said during this week’s Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee meeting.

Demling said he is struggling with the idea of uniformed officers, similar to law enforcement personnel, being a daily visual presence at schools. He called for two weeks of community input before the committee says OK.

Amherst representative Heather Lord said the schools may need to offer mental health support for students who might be traumatized by military being in the buildings.

“I would just like to make sure we have, in addition to talking to the community and having frequently asked questions, some support for those who will be triggered or very uncomfortable,” Lord said.

“School should be a safe place,” added Amherst representative Kerry Spitzer, noting she doesn’t want to see one child triggered by a National Guard member.

In the pooled testing program, for which parents and guardians have to opt-in their children, the National Guard would assist a subcontractor for CIC Health with the collection and processing of nasal swabs.

Superintendent Michael Morris said Thursday that he let state officials know that the district couldn’t move forward right now, but might be able to in a few weeks. That preserves the option of using the National Guard.

Morris told committee members that a consideration will be how long a delay there might be if they don’t take advantage of the service. Pooled testing has been considered a priority to identify possible outbreaks of infection.

“Some folks in our community have in the past expressed concerns about military being on campus,” Morris said. “It’s not my personal viewpoint, but it’s trying to be responsive to our community.”

“They’re not teaching our kids, they’re not in direct care in any way, but they would be seen, and as National Guard folks they would be wearing their outfit,” Morris said.

Unlike other area schools, which have been able to conduct pooled testing, Amherst is on its third subcontractor and continues to face staffing issues.

“It’s not like this or nothing, but we might need to wait a month longer,” Morris said.

How many districts are having challenges is uncertain, but state Rep. Mindy Domb-, D-Amherst, made the appeal to Gov. Charlie Baker due to the struggle some are having. Many area districts have been able to have pooled testing, including Northampton, Easthampton and Hadley.

Easthampton Superintendent Allison LeClair said a team is already working on pooled testing and the National Guard is not needed.

Similarly, Hadley Superintendent Annie McKenzie said testing has been ongoing and the schools do not require state-supported services.

Amherst representative Ben Herrington, a military veteran, said so long as the National Guard people are trained, he would endorse the program.

“This is what they’re there for. This is the actual purpose they serve,” Herrington said.

But he also noted he would feel more comfortable if they came in wearing “civvies” rather than camouflage. “The caveat for me would be no uniforms,” Herrington said.

“I think the benefits far outweigh any concerns, and I would fully support it,” said Leverett representative Gene Stamell.

Chairwoman Allison McDonald said she understands the sensitivity surrounding uniformed personnel, but noted the district has been adamant that pooled testing is a high value, and worried about hesitating.

“These are people serving the state and called to do the work,” McDonald said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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