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Some Vermont schools struggling to start surveillance testing on students

Published: Sep. 21, 2021 at 5:38 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 21, 2021 at 5:53 PM EDT
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RUTLAND, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont is expanding COVID surveillance testing this year in schools to include students. Last year, only teachers were taking part in the weekly tests to gauge how much virus there was in schools.

But it’s too early to tell how the testing is going at schools because some districts are still trying to get their testing programs off the ground.

Michael Clark is the Grand Isle Schools superintendent. He says his schools in South Hero and North Hero piloted the COVID surveillance program, testing kids and staff since the first Friday of the school year. Two more of his schools will soon join in.

“This is an opportunity for us to catch COVID before it creates a problem in the school building,” Clark said.

Next Tuesday, teachers and staff in the entire Caledonia Central Supervisory Union will begin testing. The following week students will be added to the mix.

I asked the superintendent there, Mark Tucker, if he thought surveillance testing could have prevented kindergarten, second and sixth grade classes at Twinfield from quarantining days into the school year.

“No. I don’t think it would have made any difference because the initial cases that we had were adults who contracted COVID outside of school and before school even started,” Tucker said.

Jorda Daigneault is a school nurse at Leland and Gray in Townshend. Her schools begin testing in a few weeks, which she says is important to know whether cases in the community are increasing or decreasing.

“Oh, yeah! Sure. Because we are not out of the COVID pandemic. It’s still right in our face,” Daigneault said.

Brooke Olsen-Farrell is the Slate Valley Unified School District superintendent. Her district includes Fair Haven, Castleton, Benson and Orwell. They begin testing next week.

She says there were issues getting the email access permissions set up even though they were one of the first to sign up. And that wasn’t the only problem.

“We had trouble getting our nurses trained in a timely fashion to actually implement it and have the supplies on-site,” Olsen-Farrell said.

Her supervisory union is using ESSER funds for more school nursing staff but she says it is still a large undertaking.

That is one reason why Superintendent Bill Olsen’s Rutland City School District has not yet begun testing.

“We understand that they had some bugs in the system that they were trying to work out and so we were kind of waiting for that to happen,” Olsen said. “We also had our own cases happening that we have been busy contact tracing with, it’s taken a lot of time and energy.”

The state has contracted with a Massachusetts testing firm called CIC Health to process those tests. Each week a certified nurse will test those who have registered to take part. Only kids whose parents have given consent will be tested.

Though testing has not yet begun in the Rutland City School District, the majority of parents I spoke with Tuesday at Rutland Intermediate School say they would give their consent, even after I asked if they worry about the test results going to a third party.

“At this point, all of us have been tested, vaccinated, there is so much information that has been shared, I think that ship has sailed,” dad Rob Mitchell said.

“It’s an easy way to keep the building safe and all the kids safe,” mom Loren Boudreau said.

“I would,” mom Jessica Coleman said. “I don’t see any harm in it. I think it’s the safe way to go.”

“Not weekly,” mom Meaghan Dunlap said. “I think it is very traumatic for kids to have that done, especially if they have autism, like my son has.”

I will continue to follow what schools find out from this testing.

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