After reviewing available information about the “test-to stay” approach for K-12 students, the Erie County Department of Health has developed documentation, including protocols, consent forms and communication materials, to move toward implementing this initiative.
ECDOH met with superintendents from Erie 1 BOCES, Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES and the president of the Erie-Niagara School Superintendents Association during November to present this opportunity.
“Superintendent feedback was instrumental in moving this ‘test-to-stay’ program forward,” Commissioner of Health Dr. Gale Burstein said. “This approach will require a substantial investment of time and resources from our department and individual schools and administrators. To do it right, we have to find out what works, how we can improve, and what our schools can expect. And with more than two-dozen school districts, dozens of private schools and more than 130,000 K-12 students in Erie County, a countywide launch is simply not feasible. A pilot program is the best first step forward.”
In consultation with these school superintendent leaders, ECDOH compiled a list of school districts that met a series of criteria that would make them a good candidate for a pilot program: sufficient number of active COVID-19 cases; a student population that would yield a solid set of data; and the ability to offer COVID-19 testing through a limited-service license. Following these conversations, ECDOH approached Grand Island Central School District as a pilot program candidate, and Superintendent Dr. Brian Graham and the GICSD Board of Education agreed to sign on.
“We are very pleased to participate in the ‘test-to-stay’ program pilot,” Graham said. “For our students who are identified as a close contact to a person who is positive with COVID-19, the ‘test-to-stay’ strategy will maximize time learning in the classroom; provide important social, nutritional and mental health supports; and maintain routines for families who struggle with child care and transportation.”
“Test-to-stay” will begin as an option for Grand Island K-12 students on Dec. 6. GICSD has contracted with Buffalo Homecare Inc. to provide staff for testing and data entry.
ECDOH said, “Broadly, in a school using ‘TTS,’ K-12 students who are not fully vaccinated and close contacts of a COVID-19 case from a school exposure would have a rapid COVID-19 test before each school day as part of a modified quarantine. Students with a household exposure would not be eligible, nor would school staff. The student would attend school that day if their test result was negative. A positive test result would mean the student is excluded from school and placed in isolation at home.”
ECDOH will provide COVID-19 antigen tests using resources from an $18 million federal grant that has been allocated for school testing and vaccination.
“The bulk of those funds will go towards their intended purposes, which are highly recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York State Department of Health: screening testing, proximate testing and vaccine clinics,” Burstein said. “Though neither CDC nor NYSDOH recommend ‘TTS,’ in the interests of maximizing in-school attendance for K-12 students, ECDOH will support this program by providing tests, staff training, contact tracing support and data analysis. Schools will be responsible for testing and parental consent, and data collection.”
The introduction of a “test-to-stay” program in Erie County comes across the backdrop of a significant increase in COVID-19 cases and a growing proportion of children under age 18 in the county’s case load. This year’s case numbers among K-12 students and school staff are surpassing even the highest totals seen during 2020-21.
“It is our sincere hope that, over the coming months, the number of students eligible to participate in ‘TTS’ decreases, as more and more students are fully vaccinated against COVID-19,” Burstein said. “Under current NYSDOH policy, people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are not subject to quarantine as long as they remain without symptoms. ‘TTS’ can be used once a student has been exposed and is under quarantine. In many ways, this testing is too late. From a public health perspective, the most powerful impact is in vaccination as a primary prevention strategy, as it reduces the risk of moderate and severe infection and risks of transmission.”
ECDOH is working with school districts and pediatrician offices to coordinate COVID-19 vaccine clinics for ages 5 years and older. A full schedule is posted at www.erie.gov/vax.