Vermont schools are being encouraged to launch new testing programs to reduce the time students have to spend in quarantine following possible exposure to COVID-19-positive classmates or others.
But finding staff for the work will test school districts already stretched thin by a pandemic that surged to its second deadliest month in September. Education Secretary Dan French acknowledged that, but nevertheless expressed optimism that it was better than the alternative — busloads of kids in quarantine following possible exposure.
“We have a lot of logistical issues to solve,” French said Tuesday during Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly press conference. “[Yet] I can’t help but think this is going to be the solution that really strikes the appropriate balance between keeping kids safe but also keeping kids in school and their education progressing.”
As of October 3, there had been 651 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases connected to Vermont schools since the beginning of the academic year, resulting in significant loss of instruction time for students, French said.
In response, the state is proposing a variety of tests that school districts can utilize that would allow students to attend classes even after they have had a close contact with a COVID-19 positive peer.
This includes rapid antigen tests that unvaccinated students who may have been exposed to a positive COVID-19 case can take at the beginning of the school day. If they test negative and are symptom-free, students would be allowed to attend classes and after-school activities. Such “Test to Stay” programs have proven effective in Massachusetts and Utah, French said.
“If Vermont has a similar experience, we will have averted hundreds of days of potential quarantine for our students,” he said.
Vermont school districts vary considerably in size and COVID-19 exposure rates, however, so the state is trying to give districts the flexibility to pursue different testing approaches, as well, he said.
More than half of all schools, 51 percent, have experienced no positive COVID-19 cases at all, French said. Thirty-one percent have had fewer than 5 cases, while 10 schools have had more than 10 cases each.
Because of this variability, French said districts will be allowed to implement testing programs that fit their particular needs. This includes PCR testing of vaccinated and unvaccinated students at school, as well as distributing take-home PCR test kits.
Districts already have significant federal funding to allow them to ramp up such testing, which French said he expects will happen in the next two weeks. He acknowledged that staffing will likely be a “major bottleneck.”
“Our challenge will be to support schools to enact such testing programs while they’re doing everything else at the same time,” French said.
To speed up the process of determining who needs testing or contact tracing, school nurses will be able to check students' vaccination records in the state immunization registry, French said. They’ll also be able to hire new staff and enlist non-medical school staff to help with testing programs.
Scott said he’s not concerned about having enough testing supplies, but he does worry about the difficulty districts may experience recruiting people to conduct additional testing.
“Obviously we are seeing a shortage of workers in every single sector,” Scott said.
The testing rollout follows the second-deadliest month in Vermont since the pandemic began, with 42 deaths in September. The previous high was 71 deaths in December. Daily infection and hospitalization rates have been declining for several days however.
New infection rates have fallen 15 percent over the past week while hospitalizations have plunged 30 percent. If these trends continue, the number of COVID-19 deaths in October should be less than half what it was in September, said Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation.
Except for high caseloads in Essex and Orleans counties, Pieciak said, the overall picture was one of "good trends, basically, statewide."