Vermont schools are running out of rapid Covid tests

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Free rapid antigen Covid-19 tests are readied for distribution at an Agency of Transportation garage in Colchester on Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021. The tests were distributed to the families of K-12 students to administer before school started after the winter break. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

On Wednesday, the Montpelier Roxbury Public School District kicked off a new Covid-19 testing process. 

Following the recommendation of the state Agency of Education, school officials were rolling out a new system called “test at home.” The new method, state officials say, will lighten the workload on school employees and help them keep up with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

But in Montpelier-Roxbury, the new system did not even last until the end of the week. 

“We are completely out of tests as of today,” Superintendent Libby Bonesteel said Thursday. “We're not going to be able to follow through on the guidance.”

Just days after the new testing method made its debut, school districts across the state are running into a major obstacle: There aren’t enough rapid tests. 

“We've gotten (tests) in the hundreds, when we need in the thousands,” Chris Hennessey, superintendent of the Barre Unified Union School District, said Thursday.

For much of the academic year, most of the state’s schools have been using a testing process called “test to stay.” 

In that process, school staff conduct contact tracing after a positive case turned up in a school. Unvaccinated close contacts participating in the program must test negative with a rapid Covid-19 test before coming back to class. 

But earlier this month, the Vermont Agency of Education unveiled a new strategy: test at home.

Schools were told to halt contact tracing entirely. Instead, all participating students who share a class with a Covid-positive person are classified as presumptive contacts.

If unvaccinated, those presumptive contacts are instructed to test five consecutive days in a row in order to attend class. Vaccinated students and school staff are given two rapid antigen tests and told to test on the fourth and fifth days after exposure. 

State officials have said the new system is intended to lighten the burden on schools, which have struggled to keep up with the rapid spread of Omicron amid widespread staff shortages.

Since Omicron spreads much faster than earlier versions of the coronavirus, “our processes of contact tracing and test to stay had difficulty keeping up,” Dan French, Vermont’s secretary of education, said at a press conference Jan. 11. 

But as that new process rolls out across the state, school districts are finding that it requires a far greater supply of rapid tests than test to stay. 

In Montpelier-Roxbury, a single Covid-19 case in an elementary school would create roughly 20 presumptive contacts, if not more, Bonesteel said. 

Cases at middle or high schools, where students move from class to class, could create between 70 and 150 close contacts, she said. 

Each presumptive contact takes home either two or five rapid tests, depending on their vaccination status — meaning a single case could eat up hundreds of rapid tests. 

“The way they've set this up, it would almost be easier if we just sent a box of antigen tests home with every kid every day,” Bonesteel said.

In the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, school officials have also run out of tests, Superintendent Jeanne Collins said. Schools there, whose student bodies have not exceeded a 50% vaccination rate, have reported between 20 to 35 positive Covid-19 cases a day, Collins said.

“We're at the point where we're going to have to start deciding if kids can't come to school again,” she said.

In Barre, school staff received a shipment of roughly a thousand tests last week — far fewer than the hard-hit district needs, Hennessey said.

"We would need, let's just say, many thousands of test kits if we were going to fairly and equitably make sure we can distribute these to every family,” Hennessey said. 

In the Mount Abraham Unified School District, Superintendent Patrick Reen said Thursday he expects his supply to last between one and three more days. 

“Generally speaking, we are concerned about our supply of test kits,” he said. The district ordered more on Thursday, he said, “but it is not clear to me when we can expect more tests or how many tests we will receive when we do receive them.”

Ted Fisher, a spokesperson for the Agency of Education, said state officials expect the demand for rapid tests in schools to drop in the coming weeks, as the Omicron wave recedes. 

“More tests are being shipped today, tomorrow, and early next week,” Fisher said in an email. “We are working to expedite delivery to any Supervisory Unions and School Districts (SU/SDs) that are using tests more quickly than anticipated.”

If a school district runs out of tests, state education officials advise against shutting schools. Students who were identified as presumptive close contacts after a positive case at school can still attend class, according to guidance from the state Agency of Education, though anyone with symptoms is still advised to stay home.  

Last week, schools across Vermont received shipments of roughly 120,000 rapid tests, but state officials expect to need about 80,000 rapid tests a week — a number roughly equivalent to one for every public school student in the state. 

“In the coming weeks, we do not expect challenges filling requests from schools, based on our current usage estimates,” Fisher said. 

On Thursday, Gov. Phil Scott hinted that more rapid tests could also be diverted to schools. 

In a press release urging Vermonters to order rapid tests through a new federal government program, Scott said that tests acquired through the pilot “Say Yes!” program could help fill the gap in schools.

"As the state awaits the arrival of an additional 150,000 tests it ordered for the pilot program, it is reevaluating the best use of these tests — including potentially allocating them directly to schools, child care programs and long-term care facilities — now that the general public has access to the new federal program,” Scott said.

For school administrators, one of the biggest challenges of the new method is simply the unknowns, said Lynn Cota, the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union superintendent. 

Staff members in her district still don’t have the answers to many questions: How many close contacts will be generated by a Covid-positive student? What about a staff member? What day will shipments arrive every week?

“Everybody is trying to do the best they can do to figure out the implications of the test at home (system),” Cota said. “It would be helpful if we could all just be a little patient with one another right now.”

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Peter D'Auria

About Peter

Peter D’Auria covers education for VTDigger. Prior to moving to Vermont, he worked for The Jersey Journal, The Chilkat Valley News and Willamette Week. He is originally from Portland, Oregon.

Email: [email protected]

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