Lebanon’s back-to-school plan includes COVID surveillance testing, different quarantine rules

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/31/2021 9:29:21 PM
Modified: 8/31/2021 9:29:27 PM

LEBANON — Lebanon schools open on Wednesday with five-day, in-person classes and also plan to offer optional COVID-19 surveillance testing to students and employees through a collaboration with the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.

The city’s four schools are among the 72 in New Hampshire that are participating in what is known as the Safer at School Screening program, according to Laura Montenegro, a DHHS spokeswoman who described the testing as a “COVID mitigation tool … in K-12 schools to support safe, in-person instruction.”

Lebanon school officials are “trying to put in every mitigating factor” recommended by state health officials, Lebanon Superintendent Joanne Roberts told the School Board last week, according to a recording of the Aug. 25 meeting.

“If we don’t have this testing, we would have no idea this was happening,” Roberts said of the potential for asymptomatic cases in Lebanon schools.

In addition to testing, Lebanon schools are requiring masks indoors, Roberts is in discussion with the four staff unions about requiring vaccination of employees, schools will aim to maximize physical distancing, and elementary-age students will be kept in cohorts as much as possible, she told the board. The School Board approved the reopening plan, including the testing, in an 8-1 vote at the meeting last week.

Lebanon schools opened last year under a hybrid system, in which students had a blend of remote and in-person classes because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and gradually moved to more in-person instruction.

Board member Stephen Kantor, who cast the sole no vote last week, said he opposed the methodology and protocols of the testing part of the plan, which will require asymptomatic students to stay home only if they test positive, not if a member of their class has tested positive.

As planned, Kantor said the testing seems less about safety than about “keeping all of our kids in school as much as possible.”

To offer the testing, which through federal funding is free to the schools, Lebanon is working with the Boston-based Concentric by Ginkgo Bioworks, a state-approved vendor.

The screening program offers asymptomatic testing of students and employees who consent to participate at an interval determined by the school district. Roberts said she expects Lebanon will conduct the testing weekly.

The testing, which is expected to begin by the end of September, will begin with pooled PCR testing using nasal swabs to collect samples from an entire class, sports team or extracurricular group that won’t require personal information from participants, according to information provided to the board. That collection could be done in 15 minutes. Concentric employees are to perform the tests and also complete required public health reporting for positive cases in order to help reduce the administrative burden for school staff.

If a positive case is identified in a given pool, the individuals in that group will be tested again, first using antigen tests and then PCR tests.

Those who test positive will be asked to isolate at home and other members of the household and close contacts such as those who’ve participated in a sleepover will be asked to quarantine, unless they are vaccinated and not showing symptoms, according to a message Roberts sent to parents on Monday. Close contacts in school will be asked to monitor for symptoms but will not be required to quarantine unless they develop symptoms.

This is different from last school year when students were sent home to quarantine if they had been within 3 feet of an infected person for 10 minutes or more, Roberts said.

Like Kantor, School Board Chairman Dick Milius said he has been somewhat concerned about the change in how schools respond to positive cases, but he said the district can’t “preplan” for every scenario and he felt the district’s return plan is “flexible enough.”

“I understand that we’re on our own,” Milius said of the back-to-school plan. “These are local decisions that have to be made.”

Because parents will still be notified when there is a positive case in their child’s class, they could opt to keep their child home to quarantine, School Board member Martha DiDomenico said.

“I do think this is an opportunity to talk about partnering with parents (and) students (and) having flexibility,” Roberts said.

Dr. Laura Greer, a pediatrician at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital who is also Lebanon’s school physician, spoke in favor of the testing at the meeting.

“More information is always better,” Greer said. “I think this is a great step forward to have better school attendance and more confidence.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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