New Vermont guidance orders schools to stop contact tracing

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

Updated at 8:40 p.m.

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

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

The directive – a summary of more detailed guidelines the agency said it will issue next week – comes at the end of a chaotic return to school after the holidays. Closures and COVID-19 cases have piled up, as have student and staff absences, as the virus tore through Vermont communities and sent case counts to record highs.

Contact tracing is the practice of identifying and contacting “close contacts” of people who became infected with COVID-19 while in school. But some districts dropped the practice this week due to the overwhelming number of cases among college students. This made it impossible for schools to test unvaccinated pupils 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 shifts responsibility for testing from school staff to families. If a student tests 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 quarantine.

Unvaccinated students and staff, meanwhile, will be offered kits containing five rapid antigen tests to take home before coming to school. Students and staff can continue to attend school as long as they test negative on each of the five days.

Families who decline home testing should follow the state’s current quarantine policy, the email says. 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 must go home for the day, even if the test comes back negative.

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

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

The education secretary said the changes are 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’s unclear how many kits each school will receive and whether the state has stockpiled them yet.

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

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