Vermont’s private schools wait for state on COVID-19 testing 

Published: 1/17/2022 8:53:33 PM
Modified: 1/17/2022 8:52:29 PM

Last week, Vermont state officials told public schools to shake up their COVID-19 testing methods.

In an email last Tuesday, districts were advised to switch from “test to stay,” a system in which school staff administer daily rapid tests to students exposed to the virus, to “test at home,” a new model in which parents would test their children before class.

The state’s Agency of Education is distributing rapid antigen tests to school districts across Vermont. Once a district has received enough tests, officials said, they should make the switch to the new procedures.

But Vermont’s private schools — often known as “independent schools” — were told to take a different track.

“Independent schools should plan to continue their current testing programs during the initial stages as the new program is set up in public schools,” Dan French, Vermont’s secretary of education, told independent school administrators in an email last Tuesday.

Those different guidelines mean that Vermont’s roughly 8,800 independent school students could undergo different testing procedures than public school students, a distinction that has raised questions for at least some independent school officials.

“I am concerned always when independents are not treated the same as publics on matters of public health,” Mill Moore, the executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association, said this week.

Last week, state officials told local administrators that the switch was partly due to the rapid spread of the omicron variant, which tore through school districts after students returned from the holiday break.

“Many of the strategies that previously were effective for us will cease to be useful (if they haven’t already) and will instead become a drain on scarce resources without a clear public health benefit,” French told districts in an email.

Suzanne Sprague, a spokesperson for the Vermont Agency of Education, told VtDigger in an email that independent schools would be instructed to transition to the new system “in the very near future.”

Delaying the process in independent schools, Sprague said, “will allow the Agency to work out distribution of the new program with the public schools and troubleshoot any issues prior to the rollout to independent schools which will occur shortly thereafter.”

But that guidance could put independent schools in a tough spot, administrators said.

“The thing we have to tell our parents is, ‘The thing we’re going to keep using has just been announced as ineffective,’ ” said Dexter Mahaffey, head of the Vermont Commons School, in South Burlington.

Vermont Commons has been using a PCR surveillance testing system — a regimen that state officials explicitly advised schools to stop using — to screen for COVID-19 among its roughly 100 students.

Mahaffey emphasized his “deep appreciation” for the Agency of Education’s work during the pandemic.

But for independent schools, he said, “it is a tricky PR situation.”

“I think this has been very challenging for everybody throughout the whole thing, and they are doing the best they can,” said Tim Newbold, the head of school of the Village School of North Bennington.

But, he added, “I would love to be able to have access to the antigen tests as quickly as the public schools.”

At the Village School, which serves about 150 children in pre-K through 6th grade, many students are ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

The school is currently setting up a test to stay program. But adopting the new testing process, Newbold said, would make life much easier for the school staff.

“It’s really tough for us to do all the antigen testing here at school,” Newbold said. “It would be much easier if (parents) were doing it at home before (the students) got here.”

But not all independent schools want to make that shift.

Jas Darland, head of the Lake Champlain Waldorf School, said in an email that the school’s weekly PCR testing regimen was working so well that she did not plan to adopt the new test-at-home method.

So far, the Shelburne school, which serves about 200 pre-K through 12th grade students, has seen no in-school COVID-19 transmission, Darland said in an email.

“Although we’re collectively holding our breath to see what these coming weeks may bring, fundamentally we’re playing a different game right now than the public schools are being asked to,” she said.

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