Some school districts are now utilizing frequent COVID-19 tests to allow children to continue attending class in-person, even when they have been in contact with someone who was infected with the coronavirus.
The protocol is often called ‘test to stay,’ in which students take a Covid test every day for a week.
So long as the test is negative, they’re allowed to come into the school building and attend classes.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not yet endorsed this strategy, the agency does recommend that schools use Covid tests to identify cases and control outbreaks.
‘Test to stay,’ along with other strategies like rapid tests and pool testing, signify that a safe school reopening may be possible even when case numbers are high in the surrounding community.
Many schools currently require students to quarantine if they have contact with an infected student, meaning that thousands of students miss in-person class each day. Pictured: An instructor leads a discussion at Xavier Academy in Houston, Texas, August 2021
Frequent testing can help students stay in school, even when they’re identified as the close contacts of a Covid-positive classmate. Pictured: Testing day at Brandeis Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky, August 2021
Since the fall 2021 school semester started in New York City on September 13, more than 500 K-12 classrooms have closed due to a Covid case.
The city – home of the nation’s largest school district – has seen a total of 562 closures, as of September 20 while an additional 441 classrooms have been partially closed.
The closures have sent thousands of students into quarantine.
In many cases, these NYC students returned to classrooms for the first time since March 2020 – only to be sent home again, almost immediately.
To cut down on these closures, city leaders announced Monday that students will no longer need to quarantine following a Covid case in their classrooms, if they remain masked and follow three-feet distancing guidelines all day.
At the same time, the city is increasing school Covid testing from every other week to every week.
While the quarantine change follows CDC guidance for schools, parents and teachers have criticized it – saying that proper masking and distancing is difficult in often-overcrowded classrooms.
NYC may be able to learn from districts in other parts of the country that are implementing a strategy called ‘test to stay.’
In this protocol, students are allowed to continue attending school in-person after they’re identified as a close contact of a Covid-positive child – if they follow a strict testing regimen.
The regimen: a negative Covid test once a day, every day for a week. Students also must remain symptom-free to attend school.
One Georgia school district, profiled by the New York Times, pivoted to utilizing this strategy after more than 1,000 students had to quarantine in early August, 2021.
Districts in other parts of the county, such as Ohio and Utah, are making similar pivots, according to The Times.
‘The philosophy of this is how can we keep healthy kids in school and sick kids at home?’ said Isaac Seevers, the superintendent of Lebanon City Schools, one of the Ohio districts that is developing a test-to-stay program
‘I think there’s some real optimism that this is a game-changer for how we learn to live with Covid.’
The CDC does not currently recommend that schools follow a ‘test to stay’ strategy, because the agency says there’s currently insufficient evidence to evaluate the approach’s success.
‘However, we are working with multiple jurisdictions who have chosen to use these approaches to gather more information,’ the agency said in a statement to The Times.
Early studies have shown that the approach can be successful.
In May, the CDC published a report from Utah high schools that tried out ‘test to stay’ last school year.
Among almost 60,000 students who got tested at the Utah schools, just 1,900 tested positive – a rate of 3.2 percent – meaning the rest of the students continued attending school with no quarantine.
The report authors estimated that the test-to-stay programs saved more than 100,000 days of in-person instruction for students.
While research on the ‘test to stay’ strategy is ongoing, the CDC does recommend Covid testing in schools more broadly.
The agency’s guidelines specifically suggest that schools test at least 10 percent of unvaccinated students and staff, at least once a week.
Schools may use PCR tests – those slow-but-accurate, genetic material-based tests – or rapid tests, which are less accurate but return results in mere minutes.
Pool testing may be another strategy that schools consider.
In this method, swab samples from an entire classroom are combined – or ‘pooled’ – into one test tube and tested all together.
Testing offers optimism for school staff and parents who want to keep students in classrooms as much as possible. Pictured: A school nurse tests a student at the E.N. White School in Holyoke, Mass., August 2021
The pooling allows a class of students to receive Covid test results in the time that it takes a PCR machine to run just one sample.
If the entire pool tests negative, the class is cleared to continue. If there’s a positive, scientists can re-test smaller groups of samples until they identify the infected student.
Baltimore is one city that successfully utilized pool testing in spring 2021.
The Covid K-12 School Testing Impact Estimator dashboard, from research organizations The Rockefeller Foundation and Mathematica, provides even more possible testing strategies for schools.
The Biden administration has encouraged more schools to start testing programs – calling on all K-12 schools to utilize funding for these programs set in the American Rescue Plan.
Though the funding package included $10 billion for school Covid testing, many districts have not yet taken advantage of the opportunity.
More testing resources – and more success stories – may make school Covid testing more popular in fall 2021.