New Vermont guidelines ask schools to stop contact tracing

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  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur © ️ Seven days
  • Education Secretary Dan French

Update at 8:40 p.m.

Vermont schools should stop contact tracing and PCR surveillance testing for students and staff, the Education Agency said in an email to school administrators on Friday announcing an “imminent policy change.” . A new “rapid response” testing program will be used instead, the directive says.

The change is driven by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, which has rendered many previously effective school strategies unnecessary, Education Secretary Dan French wrote in the letter sent Friday evening obtained by Seven days.

The directive – a summary of more detailed guidance that the agency said it would release next week – comes at the end of a chaotic return to school after the holidays. Closures and cases of COVID-19 have piled up, as have student and staff absences, as the virus plagues communities in Vermont and sends the number of cases to record levels.

Contact tracing is the practice of identifying and contacting “close contacts” of people who have been infectious with COVID-19 while in school. But some districts have abandoned the practice this week due to the overwhelming number of cases among students. This made it impossible for schools to test unvaccinated students who were close contacts, a program known as “Test to Stay” which aims to keep more children in the classroom.

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The Education Agency appears to have recognized the difficulties and will adopt a new policy that transfers responsibility for testing from school staff to families. If a student is positive, the school will notify the families of all students in that class. Those who have received two doses of the vaccine do not need to self-quarantine.

During this time, unvaccinated students and staff will be offered kits containing five quick antigen tests to do at home before coming to school. Students and staff can continue to attend school as long as they are negative on each of the five days.

Families opting out of home testing should follow the state’s current quarantine policy, the email said. The test kits will also be available for unvaccinated students who are exposed to COVID-19 in the community.

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School nurses can test symptomatic students at school, but they must go home for the day, even if the test turns negative.

The Education Agency will also ask districts to drop PCR surveillance tests, which some schools use to identify the virus in asymptomatic students and staff. PCR tests should be sent to a lab, while rapid tests give results in about 15 minutes.

“Surveillance tests do not identify cases quickly enough to be effective against the Omicron variant,” French wrote.

The education secretary said the changes were being made “with the support of infectious disease experts and pediatricians in Vermont.” Arrangements for delivery of the test kit will be made in the coming days, French wrote. It is not known how many kits each school will receive and if the state has already stocked them.

The state is expected to publicly announce the new testing policy and provide more information on the Vermont Agency of Education website next week.