Schools across the state are about to begin large-scale surveillance testing of staff and students.
The ambitious plan was announced earlier this summer by state officials and is now in the process of being implemented by local school staff.
During the statewide COVID-19 press briefing Tuesday, Agency of Education Secretary Dan French discussed the program.
“Another key aspect of our health strategy for schools this year will include voluntary surveillance testing for all students and staff regardless of vaccination status,” said French. “To my knowledge, Vermont is the only state that used surveillance testing consistently in schools last year.”
French said surveillance testing, like masks, has proven to be an effective strategy to help ensure the safety of schools, and the inclusion of students this year will mean the state is conducting many more tests than last year’s approach..
“This means we will be conducting a lot more testing which will no doubt lead to the identification of more cases — let me repeat that — this means we will identify more cases in schools many of which would not have been found because they were asymptomatic,” said French. “This is not a bad thing since it helps us stop the spread of the virus in our communities, but it also means we need to look closely at the positivity rate going forward.”
French said some districts began testing this week, but many more will begin in the weeks ahead. “I think it’s been challenging for more districts to implement the testing this week at the same time they are opening schools.”
Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said thus far 47 out 51 supervisory unions had expressed interest in the testing program.
One such district is St. Johnsbury School District, which sent out to parents the opt-in sign up form for their students to begin the weekly testing on Sept. 14. The test, which is the PCR nasal swab, is open to students age 5 and up. The youngest students will get swabbed by school nurses while the older students will self-administer the test with assistance if necessary.
Results will be delivered to families through an online portal.
St. Johnsbury Superintendent Brian Ricca said in a letter to families of the school’s COVID strategies including masking and testing, “We are taking these steps to ensure that all our students can safely return to full, in-person learning in our building this year!”
“We all have high hopes for a school year that is uninterrupted by COVID and remote learning,” said St. Johnsbury School Co-Principal Jeremy Ross. “But we also know that many of our neighboring schools have already experienced challenges related to this.”
Some of those schools already dealing with the impact of the COVID and the Delta variant surge are in Kingdom East School District.
KESD Superintendent Jen Botzojorns said that each of the 7 schools in her district was dealing with COVID in some way, either through active cases or people identified as close contacts. Because of the cases, KESD started school this week with podding of classes to mitigate interaction between large numbers of students.
Botzojorns noted that this year school nurses were doing the bulk of contact tracing in schools, which has already meant a lot of extra work for them just 1 week into the year.
Botzojorns said KESD would be participating in the voluntary surveillance testing and they were still setting up their program before extending the sign-up to families.
Botzojorns appreciates the opportunity the testing provides to get relevant data that can help officials at the local and state level to make informed decisions about the best way to keep communities safe.
During Tuesday’s press conference, French said the agency would collect several different types of data from schools this year, including the impact the pandemic has had on the education of students and what is necessary to help in the academic, social and emotional recovery of students and to engage them in effective learning. This will help the state determine the best support to provide schools and how best to allocate federal education recovery dollars.
The state will also report routinely on the results of the surveillance testing and on the number of cases identified within schools. Those reports will be available in the weeks ahead, indicated French.
“I was in a meeting with superintendents from all over the state, and everybody is hitting the ground running,” said Botzojorns. “There are a lot of incidents of COVID already.”