Schools have opened, and stayed open, this fall, even with COVID-19 still sickening people in Oregon communities. But COVID-19 is affecting schools too, including students and staff who don’t have the virus, as close contacts and exposures to positive cases lead to quarantines, which move people in and out of school.
Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill sees two solutions to that:
“One is more students getting vaccinated,” Gill said. Currently, students 12 and older are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccine eligibility for students ages 5-11 may be coming soon, but the FDA has not been approved that yet.
Students who are vaccinated and asymptomatic can remain in school.
The other solution, Gill said, is something called “test-to-stay.” This program means students who test negative for COVID-19 can stay in school. Oregon health officials said last month they were considering it, but at an Oregon state board of education meeting Thursday, Gill said Oregon needs to make it happen — starting with a more uniform quarantine policy across counties.
“I’m working with the Oregon Health Authority to try to streamline that, and to frankly move to a test-to-stay policy, where students and staff are regularly tested for COVID-19 if they become a close contact and can stay in school if those tests are negative,” Gill said.
“Test-to-stay” is different from current testing efforts schools may be offering. A large number of schools offer diagnostic testing for students and staffing who are showing COVID-19 symptoms. A smaller number of schools have signed on to offer screening testing, which gives schools a broader sense of the presence of COVID-19 by testing students and staff who don’t have symptoms. That program is voluntary for schools and families.
Test-to-stay faces capacity problem
But both ODE and OHA said there’s something holding Oregon back from “test-to-stay”: a stockpile of rapid testing kits, which they say Oregon doesn’t have.
“We are working hard to notify the federal government that we need more access to those kits, we know that they are working on access to those kits, and as soon as they’re available in Oregon, that’s what we will be moving towards,” Gill said.
Officials with the Oregon Health Authority also say there’s a staffing issue with implementing test-to-stay.
“Some schools have expressed interest, but the majority of Oregon’s K-12 schools have expressed concerns about staffing and implementing such a program with the resources they have,” said OHA officials in a statement to OPB.
In the meantime, Gill would like to see more counties push for shorter quarantine periods. Currently there are a few options Oregon counties use from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: a full 14-day quarantine, a 10-day quarantine, or a 7-day quarantine with a negative test result 48-hours before returning to school.
But at the end of the day, that decision is up to local public health authorities, with different counties adopting different quarantine policies. Gill said several counties including Linn and Coos counties have the 7-day policy in place.
“It is a real benefit,” said Coquille Junior Senior High School principal Jeff Philley of the 7-day quarantine where he is, in Coos County. But Philley would like to have test-to-stay in his school.
“What we want to do is eliminate the seven days completely...we want to get to where, if a student is in close contact and they come back to school the next day with a negative test.”
Like screening testing, Gill said “test-to-stay” would be voluntary for families. If the program does come to Oregon, Gill wants to see it adopted widely, with parents opting in to keep their children in school.
“My goal in implementing this in Oregon is that it is under widespread use through incentives or requirements so that we have an equitable approach to access to education for all of our students,” Gill said.
“So what we don’t want to happen is that in some parts of the state, full quarantines are in place, and in other parts of the state students never have to leave school if they’re testing negative.”
Other states and schools have implemented test-to-stay, including Massachusetts. Gill said the Governor’s office has been in contact with officials there.
Testing as possible solution to COVID “social penalty”
In Coquille, Philley and school staff are contending with complicated social dynamics around the disruption caused by testing positive for COVID-19. Philley said families are not sharing positive COVID-19 test results, because there is a stigma attached. He said it’s not a “healthy place” for his school to be in.
“Students that ...could possibly be positive for COVID right now, are not going to their doctors, they’re not getting tested, because the social penalty to pay for being a student that keeps their class at home is too great,” Philley said.
Students who aren’t feeling well stay home sick. And there aren’t as many cases being shared or reported to the local health authority.
“Cases are being swept under the rug,” Philley said.
Philley said test-to-stay could help.
“If a student tests positive for COVID, that single student goes home, but everyone else gets to stay, so you don’t have that social penalty to pay anymore,” he said.
ODE director Gill said he understands family frustrations with the constant emails or messages about quarantines, but it won’t be this way forever.
“The schools want the children in school also, everybody is working towards that goal, but we need to do it in a way where we can make sure that it’s safe for everyone in that environment,” Gill said.
“Right now, we have these quarantine protocols in place with partnerships with local public health authorities, but as soon as we can make that switch, we’re going to move that direction as quickly as possible.”