As coronavirus cases continue to reach record highs in Vermont, the Agency of Education and Department of Health embarked on a new initiative this week to offer COVID-19 tests to thousands of K-12 teachers and staff around the state.
The tests are “part of our ongoing offense against the virus,” Health Commissioner Mark Levine said at a press conference last week, a “surveillance strategy” that will give the state an idea of how prevalent the coronavirus is in Vermont communities.
This week, asymptomatic personnel at all public schools in the state — as well as at five independent schools chosen because of their geographic location and size of their staff — can take an on-site COVID-19 test. Each school district must have a designated COVID-19 coordinator or school leader to “oversee the logistics of distributing, accepting, logging, boxing and shipping the kits,” said Agency of Education spokesperson Suzanne Sprague.
The Agency of Education is not aware of any other state conducting this kind of school staff surveillance testing, Sprague added.
On Monday, the South Burlington School District tested around 270 employees at its five schools, including teachers, paraeducators, nutritional service team members, facilities crew and central office staff, according to South Burlington High School assistant principal John Craig. At 3 p.m., a staff member collected tests from all five sites and brought them to UPS to be sent back to the Department of Health.
Craig, who ran a testing center for high school employees out of the school’s weight room, said the district was notified by the state early last week that it would be part of the testing program. “We needed to work quickly and intentionally to develop and execute our plan,” he said, adding that he was proud of the staff members who volunteered to help with the effort.
Across the parking lot from the high school, at South Burlington’s Tuttle Middle School, social studies teacher Ted Godfrey waited in a small line inside his school and received a testing kit and a set of directions from a gloved school employee at 11 a.m. Monday. He brought the kit out to his truck — teachers were advised to do the test outside or in their cars — and used a cotton swab to take a sample from both nostrils.
Godfrey said the test was markedly less invasive than the COVID-19 test he took in July, which used the longer nasopharyngeal swab, a test Commissioner Levine once referred to as a “brain tickler.”
Afterward, Godfrey said, he sealed the test in a baggie and dropped it off with another school employee, then went to his classroom where his students were waiting for him. The process took less than 10 minutes.
Godfrey’s sample, along with those from thousands of other Vermont educators, will make their way to the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. The nonprofit research center currently processes thousands of tests a day from colleges in the Northeast, including the University of Vermont, Champlain College, Saint Michael’s College, Norwich University and Northern Vermont University. This fall, the institute also partnered with the city of Cambridge to test its K-12 population.
In Vermont, the testing program will resume after the Thanksgiving break, with 25 percent of schools tested each week following a schedule that ensures geographic diversity, Sprague said. Testing will continue at least through the end of the calendar year.
Vermont school employees who test positive for COVID-19 will receive a phone call from a contact tracer within a few days, Sprague said. Those who are negative will receive an email within three days.
Champlain Valley School District Superintendent Elaine Pinckney said more than 500 teachers and staff in her district’s six schools were tested on Monday. About 150 employees missed out because they did not complete the registration process correctly; they’ll have the opportunity to be tested in December.
Essex Westford School District Superintendent Beth Cobb described the state's testing sign-up as “quite clunky” and said around 10 staffers who thought they had registered weren’t able to get tested on Monday. Still, close to 400 of her district’s employees self-administered tests. The process was “relatively smooth,” Cobb said.
Testing of K-12 teachers and staff will continue at schools across the state through the end of the week.