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Upper Valley schools struggle with a different kind of testing: COVID-19

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/16/2021 9:50:44 PM
Modified: 10/16/2021 10:13:26 PM

LEBANON — Upper Valley school officials say staffing issues have hampered their participation in COVID-19 testing programs touted by state leaders as a way for students to continue learning in person amid the persistent pandemic.

“You either have the capacity, or you don’t,” said David Baker, superintendent of Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union. “Most of us don’t.”

The result of those staffing issues — and what Baker described as a lack of clear protocols from state leaders — is a hodgepodge of approaches to testing in schools that keep evolving even as the school year is well into its second month.

In Vermont, Republican Gov. Phil Scott earlier this month announced three options for schools to test students in response to COVID-19 cases: rapid antigen tests for unvaccinated students who are close contacts of a positive case; PCR response testing for unvaccinated or vaccinated close contacts, or symptomatic students; and take-home PCR tests that schools can distribute to those who need them.

Under the testing regimen, students whose tests come back negative can continue to attend school.

In addition, Vermont also offers schools the option of participating in surveillance testing to identify asymptomatic cases.

“By adding these additional tools to the toolbox, we can minimize disruptions, more quickly identify cases, and above all, keep our kids in school, so they can get the education and opportunities for social interaction they deserve,” Scott said in an Oct. 4 news release.

In New Hampshire, public health officials have offered schools the opportunity to participate in a voluntary testing program known as the Safer at School Screening program, or SASS. As of Friday, 194 schools around the state had signed up for the program, said Laura Montenegro, a spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.

“Testing is performed in school with the goal being to identify and isolate individual cases to prevent outbreaks,” Montenegro said.

The program offers pool testing of entire classes or teams through a state-approved vendor such as the Boston-based Concentric by Ginkgo Bioworks, which both Lebanon and Grantham schools are using. If a pooled test, which doesn’t require identifying information from participants, shows up positive, Concentric conducts follow-up testing of individuals. Students’ participation requires parental permission.

New Hampshire schools, at the advice of state health officials, require isolation only for those who test positive and quarantine of close household contacts, not those who may have been exposed in school. Those exposed in school are simply asked to monitor for symptoms and get tested. Vermont schools, however, continue to require quarantine for unvaccinated close contacts of positive cases in schools.

Schools in both states, however, are asking anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 to stay home until symptoms subside.

Though Concentric sends someone to Grantham Village School to help with the testing, which is conducted every other week there, the testing does add to school employees’ workloads.

“I still organize who gets tested and oversee it,” said Karen Eylander, Grantham Village’s school nurse.

Lebanon Superintendent Joanne Roberts had to drive to Concord to get testing materials and deliver them to the city’s schools, she told the School Board at its Wednesday night meeting. The program also has had some starts and stops due to staffing challenges at Concentric, she said.

In addition to the SASS program, Lebanon schools have begun accepting test results from rapid at-home tests for symptomatic people. The Lebanon school nurses recommend accepting the results of at-home tests at the recommendation of DHHS, but only for people who have symptoms of COVID-19. State health officials still prefer PCR tests, the nurses said in a memo provided to the School Board ahead of Wednesday’s meeting.

“Testing sites in the area are overburdened with appointments for COVID testing, parents are not hearing back from facilities in order to schedule a test in a timely manner, and we have not yet reached the peak of flu season,” the memo said. “Therefore, providing parents with another opportunity to test their children for COVID makes it easier for parents, while clearing students to return to school in a more timely manner.”

Schools in SAU 23, which includes the Upper Valley towns of Haverhill and Piermont, are participating in the SASS program but aren’t doing the surveillance testing through the contracted provider, Superintendent Laurie Melanson said. Instead, school nurses are using rapid tests when students develop symptoms while at school if parents have provided written permission to do so.

If the rapid test is negative, the students go home until symptoms improve, which Melanson said is often by the next day. If the rapid test is positive, the student is asked to isolate at home for 10 days. There is no cost to the school districts for the testing supplies, she said.

“I think the testing has been going quite well, and I am grateful to the school nurses for their effort in this area,” she said. “School-based testing has been helpful to parents, and I hope the state is able to solve the supply shortage so we can continue to help families and keep students in school.”

Of the 15 boxes — of 40 test kits each — that SAU 23 ordered, it was able to get eight initially, Melanson said. At the rate the tests are being used, about 40 per month at Haverhill schools, she said current supplies should last a few more weeks.

In Newport, school officials have completed the initial paperwork for the SASS program but haven’t rolled it out.

Newport Superintendent Brendan Minnihan said he’s “not sure what type of buy-in we would get for using that testing program.”

Meanwhile, Hartford schools were initially planning to participate in a surveillance testing program but have dropped that idea in favor of offering take-home PCR tests to families, said Tom DeBalsi, Hartford’s superintendent. Such kits also will be available for Dartmouth College undergraduates beginning next Wednesday, college officials said last week.

DeBalsi said he hopes the take-home tests will help alleviate delays families are experiencing when trying to schedule testing appointments. Hartford is currently waiting for test kits from the state.

“We expect them soon,” he said.

For his part, Baker, whose supervisory union includes schools in Windsor, West Windsor, Weathersfield and Hartland, said he is leaning toward an approach that would allow students who don’t have symptoms but have been identified as close contacts of a positive case to come to school and attend classes. School nurses would test those students using rapid antigen tests on day one, day three and day five, during what would otherwise have been a quarantine period.

By allowing the nurses to conduct tests at some point during the day when they have time, not before school starts as state officials have recommended, the approach would be “a little more doable,” Baker said. “We’re doing our best here with the capacity that we’ve got.”

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




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