- File: Diana Bolton
Gov. Phil Scott's administration has proposed a new statewide COVID-19 testing strategy to deal with cases that are forcing hundreds of asymptomatic students into lengthy quarantines. School officials say they are too overburdened to roll it out.
Last week, Education Secretary Dan French detailed a "Test to Stay" program that would use daily rapid antigen tests to keep unvaccinated kids in school safely, even after a possible exposure to the virus. He also proposed that other testing be made widely available through schools.
But district leaders say they're already short-staffed and simply not prepared to implement the multipronged approach on their own.
"I think, without outside support in terms of staffing, I'm not optimistic about the success," said Brooke Olsen-Farrell, superintendent of Slate Valley Unified School District in Rutland County. She called the new testing program "a really daunting undertaking."
French acknowledges that districts will face logistical hurdles — staffing chief among them — before they're able to implement the new program. But, in an interview last Friday, he said he's come to believe it's "the best strategy" to keep kids safe and in school.
It's "the solution that's probably going to be the way out of where we are right now," he said. There's no timeline yet for beginning the program.
Since school resumed in late August, there have been 827 cases of the virus in Vermont's K-12 schools, compared with 1,402 cases all of last year. Hundreds more students have had to quarantine at home, missing out on face-to-face instruction. In several cases, entire schools have been shuttered in their efforts to get the virus under control.
Such measures are especially problematic this school year. In the spring, French said remote days would not count toward the 175 annual instructional days schools must provide for students. Now he's saying there could be exceptions made for schools facing high numbers of COVID-19 cases, according to agency spokesperson Ted Fisher.
The state already offers districts the option of "surveillance testing" staff and students each week to try to find positive cases among asymptomatic people. The new protocols include the rapid tests, as well as lab tests for students, staff and family members that can be taken either at home or on campus. Such methods would increase availability for those who live in rural areas and don't have access to convenient testing sites.
Parents, many of whom say their family and work lives have been upended by COVID-19 quarantines, see promise in the new testing options.
"Once I heard about it, I thought it was going to be great," Katie Devitt said.
She has three children who attend Williston schools and have had to quarantine about six times since the pandemic began. "Our kids lost so much school last year," she said. "I think this will save a lot of in-person learning days."
In theory, district leaders also support new protocols that would keep more kids on campus. But they say that in order for it to work, schools will need help from the state.
Olsen-Farrell, the Slate Valley superintendent, described the constellation of difficult circumstances in her district. She can't fill 15 openings, despite offering $5,000 signing bonuses for teaching positions. Two teachers walked off the job in the first week of school because of the stress.
More than 30 COVID-19 cases have been discovered in the district so far. Around 50 staff members are absent each day because they're sick or quarantining, and no substitutes are available to fill in. Staff are going without lunch or planning time. Secretaries are teaching classes, and central office staff are pitching in when they can. Contact tracing is not working, because students who are close contacts don't quarantine and are instead "out and about in the community," Olsen-Farrell said.
Slate Valley is offering voluntary surveillance testing, but only 150 of 1,600 staff and students opt to get swabbed weekly. Olsen-Farrell estimates that more than 50 percent of Slate Valley students ages 12 and up are still not vaccinated, although they're eligible.
Of the three school years affected by the pandemic, "this is by far the worst year yet," Olsen-Farrell said. "There's just not a good flow of information that's coming from the state. And there's not a lot of support for schools." She said she'd welcome help from an outside organization, such as the Vermont National Guard, to manage contact tracing and testing.
Grand Isle Supervisory Union has had only five positive COVID-19 cases since school started, two of which were caught through weekly surveillance testing. But each time the district gets word of a positive case, it means many hours of work for school nurses and principals, superintendent Michael Clark said.
The morning of Clark's interview with Seven Days on October 6, the Folsom Education and Community Center, a K-8 school in the district, identified a case. In the wee hours before class began, district leaders drafted an email to middle-school families, telling them not to come to campus that day.
Then school officials started contact tracing to identify close contacts of the infected community member; that can be 20 to 40 people, Clark said. The school nurse and principal had to call each close contact to walk them through the quarantine rules.
The Test to Stay system would still involve contact tracing. But instead of requiring unvaccinated kids to quarantine, the school would administer a rapid antigen test to close contacts every day for up to seven days, a process that Clark estimates would take around an hour each morning. Clark foresees a number of logistical challenges: He doesn't know where the testing would happen or how challenging it would be to get a parent to come to school and pick up their child if they tested positive. That's to say nothing about who would manage the testing, which takes several minutes to show results.
"I've got openings right now for teachers, behavior interventionists, para[professionals], cooks, that I cannot fill in Grand Isle County," Clark said.
French acknowledged that there are "finite resources" for the new testing strategy. He also believes rapid antigen tests will become harder to find as more states "are waking up" to the Test to Stay strategy. "There's no 'go live' date statewide" for the program, he said. "But I think it's fair to say that, during this month, Test to Stay will receive a lot of focus and energy."
French thinks that refining the guidelines for contact tracing, so that fewer students are considered close contacts, could make Test to Stay more feasible. Instead of requiring a whole class to quarantine when one student tests positive, for example, only those who sat within three feet of the positive student would be considered a close contact.
Contact tracing is currently very labor intensive, but it still isn't helping school officials zero in on positive cases, he said. Instead, it captures a lot of kids who never end up contracting COVID-19 — and keeps them from attending school.
French noted that data show there is minimal spread of COVID-19 in classroom settings when students are wearing masks. The state has recommended universal masking in schools at least through November 1.
"I think we have to let go of this sort of broader net, if you will, and do it in a targeted way," French said. "If we can get the [close contacts] down safely, then that's going to allow us ... to do Test to Stay."
In the meantime, French is encouraging schools to fill out the necessary paperwork to operate the new testing program. About half the schools in the state have begun that process.
French said the state could potentially deploy teams of people to help districts that are especially hard-hit by COVID-19. But the Agency of Education could have just as much trouble finding workers as school districts do.
"I would argue, operationally, based on my experience in Vermont, we would do [testing] less efficiently than the [local school district]," said French, who was superintendent of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union for nine years.
School administrators aren't so sure.
In the North Country Supervisory Union, three elementary schools — Derby Elementary School, Newport City Elementary School and Newport Town Elementary School — have already had to go temporarily remote this year. The district has had more than 100 positive cases since school began. Superintendent John Castle said school nurses and principals are overburdened.
"Are we capable of squeezing out more time from folks? Barely," Castle said. "And I say that out of the utmost respect for all of our staff, who are really expending themselves in so many ways, and it's exhausting. I worry about how much more we can ask of them."
A Testing Grab Bag
The state is giving schools access to four types of COVID-19 testing tools, each meant to respond to different needs.
Surveillance testing: Weekly PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, testing for asymptomatic students and staff to identify COVID-19 in the general population. PCR tests are sent to a lab, and results typically take multiple days.
"Test to Stay" Rapid Antigen Tests: For students who have been exposed to COVID-19 in school. Asymptomatic students would be tested each morning before entering their classroom for seven days from the date of last exposure. Test results come back in 15 to 20 minutes. If negative, students could go to class instead of quarantining, but they should continue to quarantine outside of school.
In-School PCR Response Testing: Meant for testing a large number of unvaccinated students seven days after their last exposure to COVID-19 or testing vaccinated close contacts between three and five days after exposure. Also could be used to test symptomatic students and staff after a negative antigen test to ensure they don't have COVID-19.
Take-Home PCR Tests: Schools would keep these on hand to give out to members of the public, symptomatic students who need to stay home and students' family members. Can be self-administered and include a prepaid UPS label for shipping to a lab.