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Go inside this Island Pond elementary school as it tries to stay on top of COVID protocols

A photo of three people wearing medical gowns and face masks crowded in and around a small room with light blue walls and a red floor, with a kid-sized chair in the middle.
Erica Heilman
It's a chaotic time for schools in Vermont, which are trying to stay on top of rapidly-changing COVID protocols.

All over the country, schools are struggling with the omicron surge, and struggling to keep up with rapidly-changing COVID protocols. Vermont has been using a Test to Stay protocol, which involves giving kids rapid tests at school so kids who test negative can stay in class. But the state is now moving to a test-at-home program, which relies mostly on parents to test their kids at home.

It has been a chaotic time. Last week, independent producer Erica Heilman spent a day at Brighton Elementary, a pre-K through eighth grade school of 107 students up in Island Pond. It was a particularly challenging day.

Susan Vera, over the school PA system: "Hey! Happy Tuesday, everyone, that feels like a Monday!"

That's Susan Vera, the administrative assistant at Brighton Elementary School. It's 7:45 a.m. The buses are arriving. Two positive COVID cases were reported over the weekend. Susan and the principal, Annsunee Swift, have been talking on and off all weekend about testing plans for this morning. And they were feeling pretty good about their plan until around 7:49 a.m., when more calls to Susan started coming in.

Susan: "So I had these two students that, they tested positive Thursday. I guess she figured she didn't have to call us or let us know, because in her mind, there was no school Friday, even though we were here. There was no school Monday. So that's why she's letting us know today. But that's quite a while back ..."

This is school principal, Annsunee Swift.

Annsunee: "So it'd be Tuesday that we worry about, but we were remote on Tuesday…"

Susan: "Well and Wednesday. And Tuesday there was no in-person school. So Wednesday we need to look at."

Annsunee: "OK."

Susan: "I've already received about five calls of positive cases from parents. Cases we didn't know over the weekend."

Annsunee: "OK …"

More from VPR: In Vermont, kids' mental health is deteriorating after nearly two years of instability

More and more kids are being reported positive. Miss Vera, Miss Swift and Meagan Perry, the school nurse, are trying to figure out when these kids were symptomatic, then count two days back, and figure out where these kids were in school last week, and did they go to basketball practice with their teammates from the town next door, and figure out isolation periods, which just changed from 10 days to five days ... and I'm going to recommend that you not try and figure out what's going on. I was there for seven hours. And I never did figure out what was going on, exactly.

Susan: "He's already positive. I got a call. He's already positive, I got a call. She's kept him out as a precaution, she was saying, because he spent the day Saturday with him."

Annsunee: "Maybe it'd be easier to just do the Test to stay on him if he does have permission."

Susan: "I think he does. Do you want me to go see?"

Annsunee: "Yes."

Susan: "Do you want me go see for all those second, third and fourth graders, because we're still in that mode. So we can still do Test to Stay today. Oh, no! Meagan just told me no, because too many days have gone by. She said you have to do it within the first five days, now. That's the new rule. Before it was seven."

Erica: "So I'm just chronicling what I've heard so far, which is that you have to figure out days away from symptoms for kids who are in those classes — the day away rule seems to be a moving target — then you have to figure out who was a close contact in those classes, then you have to figure out whether those kids were vaccinated, whether those kids have permission to test in school, and then you have to figure out who has to go home after sorting through all those criteria. Is that sort of a good summation?"

Annsunee: "I think so."

"So we now have to test second, third, fourth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade classes ... It seems like it's my whole school. So we don't have enough tests."
Annsunee Swift, Brighton Elementary principal

Erica: "And that's with over half of your school today."

Annsunee: "Yes."

Erica: "And it's not even 10 o'clock, yet."

Annsunee: "Right".

Erica: "And you don't have enough kits."

Annsunee: "No. We have 37 kits."

Erica: "Is this sustainable?"

Annsunee: "No."

Susan: "Here's a call I just received from a family. A seventh and eighth grade student deemed close contacts. The parent calls me and says, ‘Yeah, they don't really feel good.’ I said, ‘Have you used the test kits that you took?’ She says, ‘I don't think it's that, I think it's just their stomach.’ I said, ‘I would suggest that you test them.’ ‘No, I don't think it's that, but thank you.’"

Annsunee: "I commend her for keeping her students home."

Susan: "Yeah, but for how long? I bet they'll be back tomorrow. It's more than just flinging a test kit at parents. They need to be educated."

Principal Swift calls the head nurse of the district to check in.

Annsunee: "Hi, Lindy. Oh, that's OK. So we now have to test second, third, fourth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade classes. I have a teacher who is going to help get the students, and I was going to enter data on that, and Meagan will be testing. I know. It seems like it's my whole school. So we don't have enough tests. We have 37 tests right now. OK. All right. This is all good. Thank you so much for picking up the phone. Bye."

A parent who the principal had tried to reach calls back.

Annsunee: "Hi, how are you? I bet you're busy. Ah, I'm sorry to interrupt the nap! I just wanted to ask a few questions so we can determine, you know, who we need to contact and whatnot here at school. So for both kids, you can tell me whomever first … When did the symptoms develop? Uh huh. Do you remember when?"

Erica: "I read the letter from the superintendent and then I read the documents from state. It reads a little like the tax code. I mean, it's not easy what people are being asked to do in terms of how many days and how many, like what's the distance between tests, all of these things are rather complex. So now we're going to be asking parents to keep track of all of that. What are your concerns about that?"

Annsunee: "I'm a mom. And do I have time to read everything that my kids bring home? Or the emails that were sent from, you know, the principal and the teachers? Is it fair to ask parents to do that? I don't know. I feel for parents. I guess that’s what I think."

More from VPR: As omicron spreads, this Vt. public health expert says top-down approach to virus, and risk, should shift

Chris Lawson, principal of Charleston Elementary School, arrives with a box of tests.

Annsunee: "Come in!"

Chris: "Have fun."

Annsunee: "Chris meet Erica, Erica meet Chris."

Chris: "Hi Erica. How are you."

Erica: "Hi Chris. I’m well, how are you?"

Chris: "Good, thank you."

Erica: "Can you just ... so who are you?"

Chris: "I'm Chris Lawson, I'm the principal of Charleston Elementary School."

Erica: "And what just happened?"

Chris: "I just brought a case of Test to Stay kits for Brighton to use from Charleston."

Erica: "Because nobody, there was nobody who could … I'm just really struck by what principals are doing these days."

Chris: "So ultimately, in order for Brighton to stay open, they have to have tests. And they don't have enough tests here, and Charleston has some extras. So I brought over what we had as extra so they can, they can use them."

The testing begins.

Annsunee: "Hey!"

Kid: "Hi."

Annsunee: "How are you?"


Annsunee: "Will you blow your nose real quick sweetie? How are you feeling today? Do you have a sore throat? Runny nose? Are you feeling good today?"

Kid: "Yup."

Annsunee: "Awesome."

Nurse Meagan Perry: "OK, I'm gonna have you blow your nose with those Kleenexes there. There we go. I’m going to do both sides and swirl it around on both sides, OK? You can take your mask off for right now."

They wrap up testing around 30 minutes before the buses come. The day has ended and there are no positive cases found, which is a kind of late Christmas miracle. Now it's time to prepare for tomorrow.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or tweet us@vprnet.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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