Virginia eyes January launch for test-to-stay pilot program in schools

Virginia’s largest school system has asked state officials to participate in a yet-to-be-announced coronavirus testing pilot program that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed Friday.

A spokeswoman for Fairfax County Public Schools said the district has requested to participate in the Virginia Department of Health’s test-to-stay pilot program that is expected to begin in January.

Dr. Laurie Forlano, deputy director of the Virginia Department of Health’s epidemiology office, said several school systems have expressed a desire to participate and that details of the program are still being finalized.

The CDC formally endorsed “test-to-stay”  last week to prevent transmission in schools. Under the test-to-stay guidance, students deemed close contacts of other students who have tested positive for the coronavirus can continue in-person classes if they continue to test negative. The policy aims to prevent excessive quarantine times for students deemed close contacts.

Because fully-vaccinated people don’t need to quarantine after exposure unless experiencing symptoms, the testing pilot program should benefit unvaccinated students the most, Forlano said.

The testing policy can help keep kids in school while revealing whether any transmission occurs in classrooms. It will be rolled out at a time, after the winter break, when health officials expect cases to rise because of holiday gatherings and the spread of the omicron variant.

“We should expect that test-to-stay should help limit the disruption to school for kids who aren’t yet fully vaccinated,” Forlano said. “Instead of them having to stay home because there might be case after case, they’ll be able to stay in school instead of having to be at home.”

The state, Forlano said, has to ensure it has enough tests and sufficient staff to administer the tests and track results. The framework for test-to-stay programs calls for use of rapid antigen tests, which produce results in 15 minutes.

Districts across the country that have successful test-to-stay programs started at a select few schools before expanding, Forlano said, so Virginia will probably pick “a handful of schools from select school divisions. It depends on resources at the state and local levels.”

Those details, Forlano said, are expected to be finalized before the end of the year. The state hopes to launch the program in early January, after winter break. Vaccination rates will play a role in the jurisdictions selected to participate, Forlano said, because “every community is probably going to have different vaccine coverage rates at different grade levels.”

The CDC gave the Virginia Department of Health a K-12 schools testing grant that has been used to fund testing programs currently in place, Forlano said. That same grant could likely be used to pay for the pilot program, but not at the expense of other programs, she said.

CDC studies found that coronavirus infections didn’t increase when test-to-stay programs were used in Los Angeles and Chicago schools.

“Test-to-stay is an encouraging public health practice to help keep our children in school,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said last week.

CDC’s official guidance for schools has been that when someone in a school tests positive for COVID-19 infection, those who were deemed to be in close contact should stay out of school, in-home quarantine, for 10 days.

Now, the CDC says both test-to-stay programs and quarantining approaches are both equally good options for schools.

A similar test-to-stay pilot program was launched in Montgomery County, Maryland, schools last month. Students who are exposed are required to test daily to ensure they’re still producing negative results.

Montgomery County’s Assistant Chief Administrative Officer, Dr. Earl Stoddard, said the pilot is focusing on lunchroom exposures, which he called the “biggest chunk” of exposure cases in the school system.

Fairfax County detailed plans for its original coronavirus testing program in October. The testing, which a third-party provider offers, includes PCR tests for a random pool of unvaccinated and asymptomatic students, and rapid antigen tests for unvaccinated student-athletes and staff. With the exception of athletes, the testing program for students is opt-in, requiring parents or guardians to use a link to register their child to participate in testing.

The Associated Press and WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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