K-12 surveillance testing gets underway, and thousands of teachers and staff line up

Staff at UVM Medical Center process Covid-19 tests. Courtesy photo

Humanities teacher Jared Bailey said he and his middle-school colleagues in the Champlain Valley School District jumped at the state’s offer — announced last week — to test every teacher and school staff member in Vermont.  

Bailey took the PCR test in the school’s nursing office, where he said nurses kept the mood light and the process running smoothly. He was also relieved: The nasal swab wasn’t invasive at all, and not the so-called “brain tickler” once administered by the state at pop-up tests earlier in the pandemic.

“Registering to take the thing was far more painful and time-consuming than the test itself,” he said.

The state’s massive K-12 Covid-19 surveillance testing effort got underway this week, and teachers and administrators report the effort — announced just days ago — has so far gone off without a hitch.

State officials said Tuesday that about 1,700 school workers were tested Monday. By the end of the week, about 25,000 teachers, administrators, custodians, paraprofessionals and support staff at all public schools and some private schools will have been offered a test.

On each school’s testing date, a shipment of test kits and labels will be delivered through a partnership between the Vermont National Guard and the Agency of Transportation. Tests will be distributed by local school officials, and each individual staff member, who will have registered in advance to receive the test, will self-administer their nasal swab. The tests will then be packed up and shipped off to CIC Health, the private Massachusetts vendor the state has contracted with for the effort, and then processed by the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Negative test results will be delivered via email to the individual staff member, and positive results will be communicated via phone call.

For now, cases detected through the effort will be reported through the regular dashboards the state maintains for tracking cases in schools and the general community. But it’s possible that officials will begin reporting on the surveillance program separately as well, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Tuesday.

Surveillance testing has been conducted at colleges across the country, including Vermont, with great success, and in many instances appear to have helped contain clusters and outbreaks. The state also conducts surveillance testing in congregate settings, including prisons and long-term-care facilities.

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Such efforts have been far less prevalent in schools. One is taking place in New Haven Public Schools, which is working with Yale University. Another is in New York City, the largest school system in the country to attempt in-person learning this fall.

A better picture of the virus spread

Public health officials in Vermont announced the effort last Tuesday, saying that regularly testing school staff could give the state a better picture of the virus’s spread in the wider community.

The initiative comes as the state faces a record-breaking surge in Covid cases.

“We’ll see where it is now, where we’re certainly in a major battle with this virus. We’ll see where it is right before Thanksgiving. And we’ll see where it is right after Thanksgiving, and that will be really helpful to us,” Levine said.

Timothy Brewer, a professor of epidemiology at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, said surveillance testing should be pick up outbreaks in schools early on. As for viral spread in the wider community, Brewer said that will be more limited by how representative —– or not — school employees are of the general population.

“People who work in schools by definition are employed. So that’s already going to make them different from people who are either unemployed, or who work in the informal economy, or work at home,” Brewer said. There could also be demographic differences between the school sample and the general population. Most notably, the education workforce in Vermont, as nationwide, is predominantly female.

To get a really clear picture of how the virus is moving through the community, you would ideally test a random, representative sample of people, Brewer said. But that’s difficult to do.

“The upside of this kind of approach is that it’s a population that’s relatively accessible. So logistically, it’s going to be more feasible,” he said.

Jon Zelner, an assistant professor in epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, agreed the effort is a good, albeit incomplete, way to get a sense of Covid-19 activity in the state.

“It may not capture risk as well in older, higher-risk individuals to the extent that they are not well-represented among school staff. So it’s important to adjust for those age differences when interpreting these results,” he said.

Michael Clark, superintendent of the Grand Isle Supervisory Union, said he initially worried the initiative would be a heavy weight for his districts, given the general sense of overload felt by schools in the pandemic. But the process went well, he said, with clear instructions and support from state agencies and the Guard.

“While there were minor glitches, everyone who participated was grateful and expressed appreciation as well as a sense of comfort that we were participating,” he wrote in an email.

In the Missisquoi Valley School District, superintendent Julie Regimbal echoed Clark, and said the district’s Covid coordinator, school nurses and administrators had worked quickly to organize the process, and gotten clear instructions and help from the state.

“We had no issues at all. We distributed the kits and labels to each school and folks had no trouble stopping by the nurses office to get a test. They were boxed and shipped overnight,” she wrote.

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Jake Orr, a teacher at Essex High, said his colleagues generally seemed glad to participate, especially given how convenient the testing was. 

He took his test on Monday at a makeshift testing center at the hockey rink, where about 10 spaced-out tables were set up with sanitizers and wipes. Orr checked in with his superintendent, who handed him a test kit, and he self-administered the test while sitting at one of the tables.

“The whole process took about five minutes. It was quick and easy,” he said.

Correction: This story has been updated to more precisely describe where the Covid-19 tests are processed.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is VTDigger's education reporter. Prior to Digger, Lola covered schools for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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