Vermont officials on Tuesday defended the state's new protocols for mitigating COVID-19 spread in classrooms amid an Omicron surge that's complicated the return to school after the holidays.
Education Secretary Dan French first teased the new guidance last Friday, saying in an email to superintendentsthat schools should stop contact tracing and PCR surveillance testing of students and staff. Instead, the new plan shifts testing responsibility from school personnel to families.
If a student is positive while on campus, the school will inform families of all students in that class. Those who have had two vaccine doses will not need to quarantine.
Unvaccinated students and staff who are exposed to COVID-19 in school, meanwhile, will be offered kits containing five rapid antigen tests to be conducted at home. As long as they test negative each morning following their exposure, those students and staff can continue to attend school.
“A key variable for implementing this new system will be testing supplies,” French said Tuesday at Gov. Phil Scott's weekly press conference. “Schools will be receiving deliveries of additional test kits this week … They can transition to this new system when they feel they have an adequate supply of tests to do so, which I expect for many schools will be later this week.”
Rapid tests can also be provided to asymptomatic vaccinated students, who may want to test themselves several days after potential exposure, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said. He acknowledged that the new approach shifts some of the responsibility from schools to families.
“But this will actually help parents and caregivers make decisions about illness and likelihood of COVID every day,” Levine said.
Dr. Rebecca Bell, president of the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, was on hand at Tuesday's news conference to explain her support for the policy. Bell acknowledged that many educators feel like they are at their “breaking point.” She added that strategies to fight Omicron had to change “so that we can manage this virus without letting it break us.”
The traditional practice of contact tracing required school personnel to identify and reach out to close contacts of students who were infectious with COVID-19 while in school. Surveillance testing, meanwhile, calls for weekly PCR tests of asymptomatic student and staff.
But officials said Tuesday that such measures were ineffective against the new Omicron variant, which is more contagious and appears to have a shorter incubation period than other strains of the virus.
Later Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee heard testimony on the new policy from educators and health officials, including French and Levine.
Patrick Pennock, the principal at Hardwick Elementary School, told the panel that some of his staff were worried about whether families would actually administer the tests at home.
"Families are struggling with having to go to work and with childcare, and we feel like there may be some folks who'd be concerned ... the last thing they'd want to have happen is that their child would test positive because then they can't go to work and all sorts of other financial implications would roll out from that," Pennock said.
But in the days since schools reopened after the holidays, many Vermont districts had given up on contact tracing because of the massive spike in cases. Others didn't have the staff on hand to carry out the time-consuming job. And still more ran out of tests. Rampant cases among staff and students have forced several districts to close for multiple days.
At the hearing, Levine noted that the new guidance would standardize the processes and target students most at risk of contracting COVID-19 from an infectious classmate.
"People have interpreted this, inappropriately, as we have given up on contact tracing and that is completely untrue," Levine said. "We have really evolved contact tracing to the point where it is now, I think, a much more conservative approach and a more comprehensive approach."
In the coming days, French said, the Agency of Education would update guidance and communication forms for families to reflect the new policy.
"I think ... from an operational standpoint, it's going to give, particularly our school nurses, some hope that this is going to be more manageable," French said. "Certainly, we couldn't stay where we were, so we had to make an adjustment."