Education

How is ‘test-to-stay’ going in Vermont? It depends on the school.

Note: This story is more than a week old. Given how quickly the Covid-19 pandemic is evolving, we recommend that you read our latest coverage here.

Mill River Union High School in Clarendon. MRUHS photo

Updated at 8:05 p.m.

In the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union, the superintendent estimates that its Covid-19 “test-to-stay” program has saved over 500 student learning days. 

Meanwhile, in the Mill River school district, school officials have been too busy to begin the test-to-stay program, although they have the tests on hand.  

And in the Orleans Central Supervisory Union, schools are still waiting for the tests to arrive. 

“We have been waiting about three weeks now,” Orleans Central Superintendent Penny Chamberlin said in an email earlier this week. “I am anticipating them arriving any day now.” 

Two months after state officials announced plans to implement the Covid-19 testing regimen, districts across the state report varying degrees of progress. 

Test-to-stay, which allows students to stay in school if they test negative for Covid-19 for seven consecutive days, has been touted as a way to monitor potential outbreaks while keeping kids in classrooms.

“Test-to-stay can be very effective in terms of preventing lost instruction,” Dan French, secretary of the Agency of Education, said Tuesday at Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly press conference, citing the example of Franklin Northeast.  

In the test-to-stay process, unvaccinated, asymptomatic students who have been in close contact with an identified positive case — in the same class, for example — are allowed to stay in school as long as they have negative results from a rapid antigen test for seven days in a row. 

Vaccinated students are exempt from the program, while unvaccinated, symptomatic students must quarantine at home. 

As of Wednesday, 37 districts and supervisory unions across Vermont, along with 17 private schools, have completed onboarding and received test kits for test-to-stay programs, according to Agency of Education spokesperson Ted Fisher.

That’s only about half the districts in the state. So far, 87 schools in 24 districts have administered rapid antigen tests, according to Fisher, and a total of 51,000 test kits have been ordered. 

It’s unclear how many schools and districts, like Orleans Central, are still waiting for their tests to arrive.

Orleans Central has reported 117 positive Covid-19 cases so far this semester. It’s unclear how many absences those cases have caused. 

Other districts, like Mill River, are contending with the labor demands of the program. There, school officials were preparing to roll out the program by last Monday, Superintendent David Younce said. But over the weekend, the district was hit with a surge of positive cases. 

School nurses, who would have otherwise been administering test-to-stay, were instead swamped with contact-tracing infected students. The workload was so large that officials decided to cancel school throughout the district on Monday. 

“It's just a matter of timing and staffing availability, to be frank,” Younce said. 

Mill River is ready to begin test-to-stay this week, “as long as our nursing team is available and not slammed with actual live cases and contact tracing,” he said.  

Setting up test-to-stay programs can also be labor-intensive. School officials must obtain consent from parents for their students to participate, and must coordinate where and when students will be tested. 

“It's not something (where) you can just say, tomorrow we're doing test-to-stay,” said John Castle, superintendent of North Country Supervisory Union.

The district received its test kits earlier this month, Castle said. That same week, after a school reported a positive test, school officials were scrambling to call parents and transport test kits across the district. 

But officials at districts that have test-to-stay up and running — such as Castle and Lynn Cota, superintendent of the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union — say it largely has been effective, if demanding. 

Franklin Northeast is averaging roughly 100 tests a day at two consolidated sites in Richford and Enosburg, Cota said. Each negative test that comes back, she said, represents an in-person school day for a student who would otherwise be quarantining at home. 

“I think it's been successful in that we've been able to get kids in school,” she said. 

But the program has frustrated some parents, too.

“In some cases, when we find out you have positive cases, sometimes you find out that morning,” Castle said. “And you've got kids at school, and so now you're calling parents and sending kids home. And you can imagine how challenging that is for parents.”

The program has also placed more responsibilities on school staff, who are already stretched thin, Cota said. And despite its efficacy, the program has its limits. 

On Thursday evening, Cota texted an update: Despite its progress with test-to-stay, Franklin Northeast schools had been forced to close for the day.

The reason? 

“High number of cases, close contacts and staffing shortages,” Cota said in a text. 

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