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Test to Stay program allows close contacts to remain in the classroom

A COVID rapid test on a desk being held by someone wearing blue vinyl gloves.
Ben Dickie
Courtesy Essex Westford School District
The Essex Westford School District calculates it has saved kids thousands of hours of absenteeism, thanks to the state-funded Test to Stay program.

The Essex-Westford School District is just one Vermont district following the state Agency of Education's guidelines for something called Test to Stay.

The Test to Stay program supports students who are deemed close contacts of peers who have tested positive for COVID-19.

The program allows asymptomatic, unvaccinated students to stay in school and participate in school-based activities instead of being sent home to quarantine.

VPR's Mary Engisch spoke with Diana Smith, a school nurse and the COVID coordinator for Essex Westford School District, about the program. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: I understand the Test to Stay program is multilayered. Can you give us a broad overview of the program?

Diana Smith: The Test to Stay program is only for students without symptoms. So if a child would develop symptoms at any time during the Test to Stay process, they do have to stay home and get tested outside of school and follow the guidance they have. If they're positive, then they stay out and do their isolation period. Otherwise, they get a PCR test and come back after they're negative.

And it has been a wonderful opportunity for us to keep kids in school. We estimate in the last several weeks that we've had over 2,000 days where we have saved someone's child from having to be absent at school. So it's a great way for us to keep kids in school and keep that education process going so that they don't have to miss time at all.

We estimate in the last several weeks that we've had over 2,000 days where we have saved someone's child from having to be absent at school.
- Diana Smith

In your district, you have eight schools that can participate in this Test to Stay program because they have younger students. Can you sort of walk us through a scenario? What might it look like when you need to pivot and use this Test to Stay program?

So Test to Stay starts with us finding out about a positive case in our district. And the only time we do Test to Stay is for students who have had in-school exposure. If they've been exposed outside of school, then we can't do Test to Stay. This is strictly a school program.

So when we identify a student in our district who is positive, they are at home and we keep the rest of the students in school. We're able to identify the student who is positive, and then we do contact tracing to identify who is a close contact in that building to that student. And close contact is anything three feet or less for 15 minutes. So in an elementary school, that's usually the whole class because they're up mingling around all day long.

So we can let those families know. And we do that through a call to our families through our communications director, and let parents know that there's been an exposure and that we're instituting Test to Stay. Parents had to have previously filled out a consent form through the Agency of Education, and then we can start that process.

So we can bring a classroom to our testing site within the building and do a rapid test on each of those students that provide consent. And they stay with us for the 15 minutes while that test is being read. And then they can go to class and finish out their day as normal. They can ride the bus; they can take part in after-school activities that are within the school community.

With this, there's no testing out once we finish that Test to Stay process. They are out of quarantine and can go back to what they usually do. The only thing they cannot do — they have to quarantine when they go home. So it's only for in-school to be able to stay. Outside of school, they still need to quarantine and follow the guidance for that until they reach their seven days.

You see young people often throughout the day in the school year. Can you tell — how are the kids faring?

I think they're loving the Test to Stay program and not having to be out and miss so much school. And they can still attend sports practices after school as long as they're school-based activities. So they're missing out on a lot less activities than they would have.

So many of them have been tested previously so they're kind of old hat at it. They come in and you know, I asked them if they had this done before, and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, I know what I'm doing!” And they just take the test and off they go.

Nobody wants to get that call on Tuesday afternoon and say you need to come and pick up your child and they need to be home for the next week. So we've been able to alleviate a lot of that for parents and have them here at school.
- Diana Smith

From what you're describing, it sounds like with this process in place, you're ready to pivot, you know the steps. Does it feel sustainable? Does it feel doable? It's a lot of work.

It has been a lot of work. And for some districts, more of a struggle than others. We've been really fortunate in our district. Our superintendent gave us the ability to hire some float nurses — we call them our school nurse COVID assistants.

So we've been able to hire several RNs to work with us in this process. So if I find out we have a case, they can come and help with the contact tracing, or to be there to run this health office so that the school nurse of that building can be involved in that process to free up their time. Until we had those extra people we were really struggling. The day-to-day activities have to get set aside because Test to Stay becomes the forefront for that morning.

And more about contact tracing. We’re 18-plus months into the pandemic and no parent of a school-aged kid wants to receive that phone call that their student is a close contact of a positive COVID case.

In the past that meant restrictive quarantine and missed school days, missed work days for the parents and the family. What's been the response from parents of the K-8 students who've had to use this Test to Stay program?

They're very grateful for this. I felt overwhelmingly good responses from parents because until this they were having to miss a lot of work time to be able to stay home with their kids.

Nobody wants to get that call on Tuesday afternoon and say you need to come and pick up your child and they need to be home for the next week. So we've been able to alleviate a lot of that for parents and have them here at school.

Diana Smith is a school nurse and the COVID coordinator for the Essex Westford School District. Appreciate your time, Diana. Thanks so much for explaining more about Test to Stay. 

You're quite welcome. Thank you.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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