Covid-19 updates, Featured

Schools run out of rapid tests

Gone just days after new protocols for students and staff took effect

By Peter D’Auria/VTDigger

On Wednesday, Jan. 19, school districts across the state kicked off new Covid-19 testing protocols.

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

Rapid tests are the linchpin of new protocols for Vermont schools.

But the new system did not even last until the end of the week.

Almost immediately school districts across the state ran into a major obstacle: There aren’t enough rapid tests.

“We are completely out of tests as of today,” Montpelier Roxbury Public School District Superintendent Libby Bonesteel said Thursday, Jan. 20. “We’re not going to be able to follow through on the guidance.”

“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 turns up in a school. Unvaccinated close contacts participating in the program must test negative with a rapid Covid-19 test performed at school.

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 all 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.

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 school districts found 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.

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 last week. “We are working to expedite delivery to any Supervisory Unions and School Districts 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.

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