For weeks now, Oregon education officials have wanted schools to have “test-to-stay,” a program that keeps students in class when they’ve tested negative for COVID-19.
But those officials said supply chain issues made implementing such a program difficult.
“We know the critical importance that school attendance has on student success,” said Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill in a statement shared Tuesday.
“Using test to stay as part of a layered set of protocols in schools will keep students and educators in classrooms, maximizing days spent in school learning, growing and thriving.”
The program will work like this: students who have been exposed to COVID-19 in a school setting will take two tests: the first “soon after exposure” will usually occur at school. The student will test again five to seven days after the initial test.
“Doing tests twice during that weeklong period should pick up the vast majority of students who are exposed who may come down with COVID-19,” said OHA state epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger, “and allow them to safety participate, not just in classroom settings, but in other structured educational settings while they’re wearing a mask, without missing out on that in-school, in-person experience that they’re having this year.”
“This protocol can be used for the unvaccinated when exposed in the school setting, and when they are not exhibiting COVID symptoms themselves,” said Gill.
The tests are free, and do not require insurance or knowledge of immigration status, Gill said.
When students are not in school, they’ll have to quarantine at home for those seven days, and wear a face covering when participating in extra-curricular activities.
Vaccinated students not showing COVID-19 symptoms do not have to quarantine.
There are a couple of exceptions where test-to-stay cannot be used: if a student is exposed to COVID-19 at home or during extracurricular activities. Gill said that’s because mask-wearing may be optional and transmission may be higher in those settings.
Schools with test-to-stay programs will use rapid antigen tests. Gill said 170 school districts already use those tests for diagnostic testing of students and staff who show COVID-19 symptoms or who have had close contact with a positive case.
Schools that have diagnostic testing can implement test-to-stay, but Gill said they should work with their local public health authority to support the “modified quarantine” process.
The Oregon Department of Education plans to keep the program going for the rest of the school year, unless students vaccinate at “high rates.” According to OHA data, 64.4% of people age 12-17 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and less than a month after kids 5-11 have been eligible, 17.6% have received at least one dose.
Gill said the success of the program hinges on a few things: continued enforcement of COVID-19 safety protocols like masks and physical distancing, a stable supply of tests, and school staff capacity to participate in the program. With schools already short-staffed, Gill encouraged people to volunteer and offer support.
“Please give of your time if you’re able,” Gill said. “Implementing this protocol ensures more of our students can access their education with stability through this ongoing pandemic.”