Vermont schools should stop contact tracing and PCR surveillance testing for students and staff, the Agency of Education said Friday in an email to school administrators announcing an "imminent policy shift." A new "rapid response" testing program will be used instead, the directive says.
The change is being driven by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, which has made many of the school strategies that were previously effective no longer useful, Education Secretary Dan French wrote in the letter sent Friday evening and obtained by Seven Days.
The directive — a summary of more detailed guidance the agency said it will release next week — comes at the end of a chaotic return to school following the holiday break. Closures and COVID-19 cases piled up, as did student and staff absences, as the virus tore through Vermont communities and sent case-counts to record highs.
Contact tracing is the practice of identifying and reaching out to "close contacts" of people who were infectious with COVID-19 while in school. But some districts abandoned the practice this week due to the overwhelming number of cases among students. That made it impossible for schools to test unvaccinated students who were close contacts, a program known as "Test to Stay" that aims to keep more kids in class.
The Agency of Education appears to have recognized the difficulties and will adopt a new policy that shifts testing responsibility from school personnel to families. If a student tests positive, the school will inform families of all students in that class. Those who have had two vaccine doses do not need to quarantine.
Unvaccinated students and staff, meanwhile, will be offered kits containing five rapid antigen tests to take at home before coming to school. Students and staff can continue to attend school as long as they test negative each of the five days.
Families that opt out of at-home testing should follow the state's current quarantine policy, the email states. The test kits will also be available for unvaccinated students who are exposed to COVID-19 in the community.
School nurses can test symptomatic students at school, but they must go home for the day, even if the test comes back negative.
The Agency of Education will also direct districts to abandon PCR surveillance testing, which some schools have been using to identify the virus in asymptomatic students and staff. PCR tests must be sent to a lab, whereas rapid tests give results in about 15 minutes.
"Surveillance testing does not identify cases fast enough to be effective against the Omicron variant," French wrote.
The education secretary said that the changes are being made "with the support of Vermont's infectious disease experts and pediatricians." Arrangements for test kit delivery will be made in the coming days, French wrote. It is unclear how many kits each school will get and whether the state already has them stockpiled.