Hudson Valley counties fight to cut student quarantines

In a Dutchess school district, unvaccinated students who may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 but who are asymptomatic can take a rapid COVID test each morning at district headquarters.

A strategy to help unvaccinated students avoid having to quarantine themselves at home – involving the use of rapid COVID-19 tests – is proving difficult to implement in the Hudson Valley.

In fact, Rockland, Sullivan, Orange and Putnam counties have said they will not adopt so-called “test-to-stay” programs, in part because state requirements are too difficult to meet.

The state’s health department requires that unvaccinated students who would otherwise have to be quarantined due to close contact with someone with COVID can stay in school if they are asymptomatic and are tested for COVID for five consecutive school days. But rapid tests must be available for all schools in a county, in the interests of fairness.

Dutchess County has put the program in place, with the participation of several school districts, and Westchester County is looking to make it work.

In a school district in Dutchess, Wappingers, unvaccinated students who may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 but who are asymptomatic can take a rapid COVID test each morning at district headquarters. If they are negative, students may attend classes but not participate, as the state requires, in extracurricular activities.

“Before this was implemented, we were very concerned about the number of students being quarantined,” Wappingers Superintendent Dwight Bonk recently told the Board of Education. “And now, with the option that the county has given us, we have found it necessary to do this in our district every day for any students who may have been affected.”

The state does not release district-by-district quarantine figures, but educators say student quarantines are on the rise in many districts. Public schools in the seven counties of the Mid Hudson Valley reported 5,197 cases of COVID among students between September 13 and November 30, representing about 1.6% of total enrollments.

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The state reluctantly offers its approval

Earlier this fall, several education groups asked the state’s health department to allow testing as a way to keep unvaccinated students in school after coming into close contact with someone with the condition. COVID. They pointed to a statewide program in Massachusetts with the same goal.

The state health ministry responded with a memo in late October saying it “does not recommend” the test approach to stay, but would allow county health departments to supervise it in their schools under conditions. strict.

These conditions included that every school in a county must have the resources to make daily rapid tests available to students in need and that daily tests must be completed before the start of the school day. Testing should be done every school day for seven days after exposure.

Rockland and Sullivan counties determined they could not meet the fairness requirement.

The Rockland County Department of Health “has determined that the availability and accessibility of testing is not equally available to all school districts in Rockland,” county spokesperson John Lyon said. “Therefore, this policy option cannot be implemented locally due to the requirements set out in the NYSDOH memo.”

Sullivan County Public Health Director Nancy McGraw said Sullivan came to the same conclusion.

“We have been advised by State DOH that testing should be fair in all areas of the county,” McGraw said. “This is not the case at the moment, and we do not have the necessary resources now. The solution remains vaccination.”

Putnam County is not going to implement a test to stay because the state’s health department is not recommending it, spokeswoman Shanna Siegel said.

Orange County Health Commissioner Dr Irina Gelman said Orange was focusing on promoting vaccinations to reduce quarantines.

“The transmission of COVID-19 is high and it is important that all people five years of age and over who are medically able to tolerate it are vaccinated as soon as possible,” she said. “Fully vaccinated people who are asymptomatic do not have to be quarantined after exposure to COVID-19. ”

Westchester County will allow school districts to implement tests to stay and provide rapid tests to districts that request them, a spokesperson said. Students can get tested every day at their school, at a pharmacy, or at a state-approved provider.

Eric Byrne, chairman of the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents, said he was not aware of any Westchester districts that had set up a test to stay, as they await further instructions from the county.

In Dutchess, the test to stay has been successful in districts that use it, said Andrew Sherman Evans, Dutchess County director of public health and disease prevention.

“Test to stay has proven to be an effective tool for enabling students to safely participate in in-person learning, which remains a priority for Dutchess County,” said Evans. “Additionally, by testing exposed individuals, families have more information about the health condition that is important in controlling the spread of the virus.”

The Ulster County Health Department did not respond to questions about whether the county would implement a test to stay.

What about state control?

In mid-November, the Lower Hudson Board of Principals called on Governor Kathy Hochul to implement a statewide staying test program and for the state to provide rapid testing, this that would ensure equitable access.

Some areas of New York City are experiencing a shortage of rapid tests.

But when the state’s health department updated its rules for the test to stay on Nov. 24, it repeated that the test to stay remains a county decision and that the state will not provide rapid tests. additional.

In early fall, New York state distributed $ 335 million in federal stimulus funds to counties outside New York City for COVID testing programs in schools.

Massachusetts, the state many saw as a model, launched a test program to stay statewide in September. Virtually all of the state’s 1,847 public schools now participate.

As of Wednesday, the program had saved about 135,400 school days for students who would otherwise have been quarantined, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“It made a significant difference in terms of keeping the kids engaged and learning,” said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “I haven’t spoken to anyone who was disappointed, although our nurses felt a lot of stress in terms of dealing with it.”

Massachusetts contracted with a private company to oversee the testing. But so many schools chose to participate that the company was slow to staff, forcing school nurses to complete much of the testing in early fall. In October, Governor Charlie Baker called in 200 members of the National Guard to help with the tests.

Cathryn Hampson, president-elect of the Massachusetts School Nurses Organization, said some districts still did not have enough staff for daily testing and clerical work.

“Testing to stay creates a huge volume of work,” she said. “Even when outside groups do the tests, nurses need to find contacts and let families know what’s going on. Some nurses burn out and leave.”

But Hampson said the test to stay is working, once the logistics can be determined.

“We have managed to keep a lot of children in school,” she said.

Gary Stern is an editor / writer covering K-12 education in the Hudson Valley. Contact him at [email protected] Twitter: @garysternNY. Click here for his latest.

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