MONTPELIER — Acknowledging the challenge in asking an already stretched staff to expand COVID-19 testing in schools, Secretary of Education Dan French emphasized the need to prioritize testing to keep students in classrooms and safe settings.
“Our challenge will be to support schools to enact testing programs while they’re doing everything else at the same time,” French said Tuesday at the governor’s weekly news conference. “The major bottleneck of implementing testing will be staffing.”
French expects schools could end up using federal coronavirus relief money to hire additional employees who may not be licensed educators, or training nonmedical school staff to lend a hand with testing. The state received some pushback for a plan announced Friday to ramp up testing from the Vermont State School Nurses Association, which worries about an ever increasing workload.
Rapid antigen tests are anticipated to reduce the number of days students need to quarantine, with students and staff deemed “close contacts” of an infected person taking tests at the beginning of the day and staying in school if the results come back negative. Polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, testing in schools and take-home PCR test kits also are being added to the arsenal, which already included “surveillance testing” of asymptomatic students and staff to see if the virus is present within schools.
“Things will look different from school to school,” French said. “Parents and families should expect to hear directly from their schools on how these programs will exactly be rolled out locally.”
French said that since the start of the school year, more than 650 cases were reported in Vermont public schools, and 107 happened in the last seven days. About half of the public schools in the state haven’t had a case so far.
Every case in a school requires “significant effort” to manage, French said.
“The lack of precision in contact tracing, particularly with the greater transmissibility of the delta variant, has not only been labor intensive but it has also resulted in too many students being in quarantine,” he said. “This is where testing will be critically important because it ultimately can lead to fewer students being out of school.”
School nurses will now have access to student vaccination information, which French said will “greatly speed up” contact tracing and case management. The school nurses association raised concerns about relying on parents to voluntarily share the vaccination statuses of students.
School districts have “considerable funding from the federal government available to support their COVID-related activities,” French said, expecting staffing to be a bigger issue than money for the testing effort. He noted school nurses will still need to oversee testing but nonmedical staff could be enlisted to help with managing logistics.
“I’m very optimistic that testing will increasingly become the critical strategy this year to keep schools safe but also to keep students in school,” he said. “Our goal at the state is to do everything we can to make testing as easy as possible for all of our schools.”
French said the state’s testing processes will continue to be refined based on feedback.
Gov. Phil Scott pointed out that every sector is experiencing workforce shortages, and the pandemic is exacerbating the issue.
“Definitely, school districts are feeling the shortages,” French said. “They’re spread pretty thin.”
He recalled schools going remote at different points last year due to staff availability more so than student issues.
French didn’t sound too surprised to hear about Brattleboro Union High School reporting an increase in “physical aggression” since returning to fully in-person instruction this year.
“We are still contemplating implementing a statewide data collection that will give us better insight more specifically as to what those patterns actually are, what are those behaviors, what are they specifically manifesting themselves as,” French said. “So we still have some work to do to investigate this more thoroughly and understand what the broader patterns are.”
French said he hopes to get a better grasp of behavioral issues statewide once the delta variant of COVID-19 and testing programs in schools aren’t consuming as much time.
Some conflicts at the high school originated on social media. French reported hearing about conflicts among students in other schools but also observing them happening with adults at school board meetings.
“I can’t help but think that some of the interactions that were sort of permitted, if you will, on social media don’t translate as well when you’re person to person and should be exercising more civility and self restraint, and frankly more respect for each other,” he said. “I think we have more work to do on that as a society. I wouldn’t want to pin it all on kids.”
Asked if any school programming might be developed to assist with the issue, French said educational tools can be used to make students successful.
‘Uncertainty in the forecast’
With the number COVID-19 cases dropping in Vermont over the last two weeks, state officials are still not sure whether the trend will continue.
“There’s still some uncertainty in the forecast,” said Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation.
Pieciak said another week of data will help determine the virus’ path in Vermont, where COVID-19 cases decreased by 15 percent over the last seven days and 23 percent over the last 14 days. Hospitalizations for Vermonters who were not fully vaccinated decreased by 8 percent in the last seven days and the rate for those who are fully vaccinated decreased by 22 percent during the same time, according to state data.
Vermont reported 42 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in September, the second deadliest month for the state during the pandemic, and 323 deaths overall. Pieciak said less are anticipated this month.
Pieciak said infections, hospitalizations and deaths in the United States dropped by more than 10 percent in each category in the last week. He noted the numbers look good in the Northeast region, with the exception of New Hampshire and Maine.
About 88.3 percent of eligible Vermonters have taken at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. State Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso said, given that high vaccination rate, she anticipates case counts will go down in the winter, and there will be lower transmission in communities.
“I’m not hearing a lot of concern from national experts about moving indoors,” she said.
Vermont has “few mitigation measures” in place now and case counts are coming down, Kelso said. For traveling or visiting family during the holidays, Gov. Scott suggested rapid tests could be useful.