Under a new Vermont testing protocol, parents of students will be responsible for testing their children if they have been identified as close contacts of a positive Covid-19 case.
The new procedures, which do not yet have a set implementation date, were among a series of safety measures announced on Tuesday during Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly press conference.
“This is part of an overall expansion of testing across Vermont, with increased use of take home and rapid testing modalities to help Vermonters get their results fast,” Ted Fisher, an Agency of Education spokesperson, said in an email.
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Under the current procedures for “test-to-stay,” contact tracers identify close contacts after a case of Covid-19 at school. If unvaccinated, those close contacts can return to school only if they submit to seven consecutive days of Covid-19 rapid testing.
A negative test means students can attend school that day, while a positive means they must return home. Positive test results are then tallied and recorded by the Vermont Department of Health.
Officials plan to continue recommending those test-to-stay procedures. But under the new testing program, parents — not school staff — will administer Covid-19 tests to students at home.
“Essentially, schools will become a distribution point of antigen test for students and their families,” French said, “not administrators of a testing program.”
The new procedures are intended as “a transition away from rapid antigen test-to-stay administered at the school, to increased use of at-home antigen tests where needed,” Fisher said in an email.
The transition to the new protocols, which still are “under development,” is expected to begin in early 2022, Fisher said.
Much still is unclear about the new recommendations.
If parents are conducting Covid-19 testing at home, it’s unclear how — or if — the Agency of Education will continue to collect and publish data for students and staff who test positive.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Secretary of Education Dan French admitted that the Agency of Education’s school coronavirus data lost “some of its currency” during the spread of the Delta variant. And with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, data likewise will become less timely, he said.
The agency’s data does not always match that reported by local school officials, and in some cases is a significant undercount.
It’s also unclear how school districts will ensure compliance with isolation rules.
If a student tests positive during test-to-stay, they were expected to isolate at home for 10 days. Per new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state is now recommending that those who test positive isolate for only five days.
But some parents still may be reluctant to report a positive test for fear of a student missing school.
“Vermont’s success throughout the pandemic has relied upon Vermonters stepping up to do the right thing,” Fisher said when asked about ensuring compliance. “Vermont families care about the safety of their schools and their communities, just as much as they want their students to be in school learning in person with their friends.”
Educators’ and school staff organizations contacted by VTDigger expressed surprise or confusion about the announcement.
“Our initial response is, ‘whoa,’ ” said Soph Hall, a past president of the Vermont State School Nurses Association. The announcement was “sprung on us without the background information,” she said.
“I’m as clear as mud on this right now, to be honest with you,” said Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principals Association.
But all the groups declined to comment specifically on the new protocol, saying they had received no conclusive information on what it would look like.
“We’re evaluating what this actually means in practice,” said Darren Allen, spokesperson for the Vermont-National Education Association, the teachers union. “We continue to watch guidance evolve like everybody else. And so we really have to understand the logistics and how this is going to work.”
Hall, of the nurses’ organization, said she expected the state to hold informational meetings to outline the new plans.
“We go back to school in less than a week,” Hall said. “So I think parents are going to be as confused as the school staff until we get some answers.”
On Tuesday, Vermont officials also announced plans to distribute nearly 90,000 rapid Covid-19 antigen tests to parents of schoolchildren before the reopening of schools in January.
In order to pick up their kits, which each include two rapid antigen tests, parents must register via an online portal and provide the names of their children and the school they attend.
The state will be distributing 87,000 tests — two for every student in the state — on Thursday and Friday at 51 Agency of Transportation facilities across the state. Students are not required to be present to pick up tests.
Teachers and school staff are not eligible for those 87,000 tests, a health department spokesperson said.
Issuing test kits in packs of two will allow students to test themselves twice, with a 24-hour interval between the two tests, before returning to school next week, officials said.
“Additional test kits are being distributed through some community partners who serve hard-to-reach neighbors to help ensure equitable access to all,” the governor’s office said in a Wednesday press release.
The tests are recommended, but not required, for students to return to school on Monday.
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