By the numbers, Peninsula School District’s Test to Stay program is a roaring success.
During the first three weeks of school, before the precautionary testing program to curtail the spread of COVID-19 was put in place, the district logged 2,184 missed days of in-person learning. A missed day equates to one student missing one day of classes.
“And then, after we started the program, in a comparable period of time between Oct. 4 and Oct. 22, we calculated 154 days missed of in-person learning,” said John Yellowlees, executive director of student services.
Under state and local health department guidelines, unvaccinated students who have had close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 must quarantine for at least seven days. Under Test to Stay guidelines issued by those same agencies, students who were exposed at school can keep attending classes as long as they test negative and remain symptom-free.
“A close contact is defined by the Washington State Department of Health as an individual who has spent 15 or more minutes over a 24-hour period within 6 feet of the confirmed case, or within 3 feet in a K-12 indoor classroom setting,” according to information on the district’s website. “Each confirmed case in (the district) is contact traced and families are notified if their student is determined to be a close contact.”
Test to Stay is optional. Parental consent is required for those 17 and under.
The Test to Stay option is only available for unvaccinated students who have had a close contact at school as identified by contact tracing. Those who are exposed out in the community or at home must quarantine for seven days and test negative before returning to classes. Those who decline to test must quarantine for 10 days.
Students under Test to Stay can attend classes during the seven-day “modified quarantine,” but not before- or after-school activities, including childcare. They are tested once they are found to have been exposed at school and five to seven days after the initial exposure. Those who test negative and remain symptom-free can return to full participation on Day 8.
Students who are vaccinated or who have had and recovered from COVID-19 within the past 90 days can stay in school after an exposure no matter where it happens as long as they remain symptom-free. Testing is recommended, but not required, five to seven days after exposure.
All students who have potentially been exposed to a COVID-positive person are advised to monitor symptoms for 14 days.
School staff are not eligible for Test to Stay since they’re required to be vaccinated (or have a religious or medical exemption).
The response from families to the Test to Stay option has been largely positive.
“I think it’s fair to say the vast majority of families that have had a student that’s a close contact at school and have had the option to test to stay have tested to stay,” Yellowlees said. “Very few have said, ‘No thank you.’”
Parents of unvaccinated students who would like to opt in to the program can preregister through a link on the district’s website to save time in the event their child is exposed at school.
Peninsula School District also does other types of COVID-19 testing like diagnostic testing on students and staff who become symptomatic at school. As with Test to Stay, parents must give permission for their student to be tested at school if they become ill.
The district also conducts regular COVID screening tests of athletes under guidelines of the Washington State Interscholastic Activities Association. Peninsula earlier this season had to cancel football games for its varsity and junior varsity because of a “health-related issue” on the varsity team.
Since Oct. 4, the district has given 600 tests, including Test to Stay and diagnostic testing. Eleven were positive for COVID. Of those 11, five were diagnostic testing, six were tests given because of a close contact at school.
Peninsula, with about 9,000 students enrolled, reports on its COVID-19 dashboard that since the first day of school there have been 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among students and staff that originated inside school facilities. There have been 148 cases that originated outside of school.
As of Nov. 5, the district was monitoring 70 current school-based contacts at the elementary level (those having potentially been exposed within the past two weeks), 22 at the middle schools and 18 at the high schools.
Last year, there was one outbreak within the district. A classroom at Peninsula High School was temporarily closed. This year, there have been no outbreaks.
Miriam Atchison, lead nurse for the district, says Test to Stay is one of multiple measures helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Peninsula schools, along with masks for staff and students, social distancing and contact tracing.
Every staff member has a hand in COVID mitigation on top of their regular duties, Atchison said, whether it’s more frequent cleaning of classrooms and buses, administering tests, contact tracing (which is conducted by district staff), or answering the steady stream of questions from parents.
Atchison herself has been pulled away from her regular school nurse duties. COVID mitigation is now the main focus of her job, and the district has hired another full-time nurse to fill the void.
“All together with contact tracing, Test to Stay, reporting to the health department, explaining quarantine periods or what to do if my child gets sick, it takes my whole day,” Atchison said.
“It’s put a significant strain on the whole system,” Yellowlees said. “You know, when I think of the work our nurses and health techs were doing before COVID, it was more than a full day.”
Principals and assistant principals designated for each building as “COVID-19 coordinators” are stretched thin, too. Much of the contact tracing and family communication ends up on their plates.
Peninsula isn’t alone in feeling the strain, said Aimee Gordon, school district spokeswoman.
“If you reach out to any of the districts, they would say the same thing, but we just have a strong desire to have our students in person and so this is what we have to do in order to keep them in person,” she said.
Peninsula has gotten some help from the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management and has reached out to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department for help with contact tracing. The district is trying to hire more health techs and nurses, but the national labor shortage means all districts are tapping into the same shallow pool of resources.
One big challenge for both staff and families is that COVID-19 guidance from the state keeps changing as more is learned about the disease, vaccines become available to different populations and mitigation strategies are refined. The trend on the part of national and state health officials has been toward a balance of risks and rewards for keeping students in school.
For example, in the past, the “gold standard” for quarantine was 14 days. Now, it’s seven, provided the student tests negative five to seven days after exposure and is symptom-free. The purpose, Atchison and Yellowlees said, is to maximize the amount of time students are learning in-person.
Another recent change is that the results of at-home, self-administered rapid antigen tests are no longer accepted for students in quarantine waiting to get back to school. The district accepts both PCR (tests for the genetic material of the SARS-CoV-2 virus with results in two to three days) and rapid antigen tests (tests for proteins on the surface of the virus with results as quickly as 15 minutes), but they must be given by health facilities. Written proof of test results is required before a return to school.
Atchison is optimistic about the new availability of vaccines for children ages 5-11. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows 27% of parents were eager to get their younger children vaccinated. One-third say they will wait to see how the vaccine is working. Three in 10 parents of children ages 5-17 say they will definitely not get the vaccine for their kids, according to the poll.
Atchison thinks those projections likely will bear out among Peninsula families. The district recommends vaccines for its students, but doesn’t require them.
“I agree with that study” Atchison said. “And that will be 30% fewer close contacts in the elementary school. That will be significant for us. So today, you know, if you had 15 close contacts and if five of them are vaccinated, then it only impacts 10 kids instead of 15. So that’s pretty good. That’s much better.”
The availability of the vaccine for children and youth ages 12-17 has already had an impact on student learning and staff time, Yellowlees said. “We’re not testing as many students at the secondary level for Test to Stay simply because many more are vaccinated.”
Unlike with other vaccines that are required in schools, the district does not request students’ COVID vaccination status. If families provide proof of vaccination in the course of contact tracing, for example, that information becomes part of the students’ health record.
And although the district must give detailed reports to the state health department on confirmed cases among its students and staff, that information is held strictly confidential by both district staff and health officials, who are bound by privacy laws relating to patient records and student information.
Peninsula School District is hosting upcoming COVID-19 vaccine clinics staffed by MultiCare Health System. Shots are free and available to students ages 5 and up, their families and community members. All clinics are held from 3:15 to 5:30 p.m.:
Clinic Dates: Nov. 10 (second dose); (first dose was offered Oct. 20)
Address: 10414 56th St. NW, Gig Harbor
Clinic Dates: Nov. 9 (first dose) and Nov. 30 (second dose)
Address: 9010 Prentice Ave., Gig Harbor
Clinic Dates: Nov. 16 (first dose) and Dec. 7 (second dose)
Address: 3701 38th Ave., Gig Harbor
Clinic Dates: Nov. 18 (first dose) and Dec. 9 (second dose)
Address: 5510 Key Peninsula Highway NW, Lakebay
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