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Vt. schools struggle to implement ‘Test to Stay’ policy

Published: Oct. 15, 2021 at 6:15 PM EDT
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RUTLAND, Vt. (WCAX) - School nurses and staff around Vermont are preparing to start the new COVID testing programs aimed at keeping students in the classroom. But numerous school officials we spoke to are struggling to find enough staff to administer the tests, and some are dropping school-wide surveillance testing.

“It seemed like the right direction to go to help to keep more children in school,” said Essex Westford Superintendent Beth Cobb. She says her district will no longer take part in surveillance testing and instead will use three testing methods suggested by the state.

Those three methods include the state’s “Test to Stay” program, where rapid antigen tests are given to unvaccinated students and staff who are close contacts of a positive COVID case for seven days. In-school PCR tests are for students or staff with symptoms or who suspect exposure. There is also a take-home version of that PCR test.

Cobb says her district’s COVID coordinator is taking part in a webinar-based training. “She will then be able to train other staff members,” Cobb explained. The district is using federal COVID relief money to hire five nurse substitutes who will work with the COVID coordinator.

But some districts, including South Burlington, are looking for volunteers to assist with Test to Stay. “We have a good group of folks that came forward to help with surveillance testing and we are in the process of asking if they will be available for Test to Stay,” said the district’s superintendent, David Young. He says they postponed surveillance testing and are waiting for further guidance from the state before beginning Test to Stay.

But in the Grand Isle Supervisory Union, Superintendent Michael Clark says they are continuing surveillance testing and have already begun in-school PCR testing. He says on Tuesday, families drove up, students were swabbed, and they tested about 20 students in 45 minutes. On Thursday, students were back in school. “It’s a quick and easy way for parents not to have to worry about, ‘How do I get the test at the seven-day mark?’ We actually even went to one house for a family that didn’t have transportation,” Clark said.

The PCR tests were provided by the state in Grand Isle, but supply issues are a worry for many districts. Some say until the state gives more information, they are not committing to any of the testing methods. And school nurses worry the methods are not a reality. “We don’t really know what the supply chain is going to look like and that is going to impact us,” said Sophia Hall, a nurse at Miller’s Run School in Sheffield.

Other nurses said that even if schools find volunteers, nurses will most likely still have to oversee the testing, and finding enough people to be on call will be difficult. “You never know how many cases you’re getting in a given week or how many schools in your district will be affected,” said Becca McCray, a school nurse in Burlington.

Agency of Education officials say they will give specific recommendations to schools next week for allowing volunteers to help with testing.

Almost all the superintendents we spoke to said they are looking forward to October 26 when the FDA is discussing the use of the Pfizer vaccine in children ages 5 through 11.

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