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School Leaders Outline New Test and Stay Protocols

Burlington Public Schools have changed some of the protocols and procedures in its COVID-19 mitigation plan in response to a big spike in cases.

The new plan was outlined by Superintendent Eric Conti and Assistant Superintendent Patrick Larkin at this week’s School Committee meeting.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes in an alteration to the district’s Test and Stay program. Since it was implemented last fall, the schools have been testing students who were identified as a close contact (within six feet) of a person who tested positive for the virus. The tests began as soon as the positive cases were reported.

Conti and Larkin said the problem with this method is that in the first couple of days asymptomatic people might have a test that shows a false negative. They believe this is what happened at Francis Wyman before the holiday break – students were testing negative but had the virus and were sent back to class.

The new plan is to have anyone identified as a close contact go home to quarantine for five days and then take a test – either at home or at their school. They also changed the definition of a close contact, based on guidelines from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), to anyone who was within three feet of a positive case rather than six. They said they were likely too conservative in the past and that this would cut down on the number of students who would be out of school.

Superintendent Conti also said that students are only considered to be close contacts if they are unvaccinated. Vaccinated students who were within three feet of a positive case do not need to quarantine.

“The way you can not be identified as a close contact and not be in quarantine is to be fully vaccinated,” he said.

The district is using DESE’s definition of two initial doses of the vaccine but not requiring a booster, as the CDC guidelines do, but Conti said he thinks a booster will be required at a later date.

Conti and Larkin said these changes were necessary due to the rise of cases within the school.

“A year ago if we had four cases in a week that was a big and busy week for us,” Conti said, explaining that on January 4 they had 519 student absences, 540 on January 5 and 599 on January 6. They also had 190 known cases among students and staff members that same week. As of Tuesday evening they were up to 95 student cases and 19 staff cases for this week.

Larkin said these numbers would make it impossible for the staff to keep up with Test and Stay if they continued to identify a close contact as within six feet. He pointed to how much work was done as cases were rising at Francis Wyman and said such high levels of testing was not feasible.

“Looking at what people were doing from teachers, to administrators to nurses, it was incredible to watch but I don’t know if it was humanly sustainable, in fact I know it’s not,” he said. “We’re now starting to see similar case loads in all of our schools so the reason we’re not continuing with the original Test and Stay is that we can’t maintain it.”

There was discussion about obtaining tests to distribute to students’ families and, if possible, staff members.

“I think if we’re going to require testing then we need to provide tests,” Conti said. “It would be great if we could provide them to staff as well.”

The issue is cost. Director of Operations Bob Cunha said the state has a pre-cleared distributor that is able to provide tests but that the minimum purchase must be one pallet of roughly 9,000 tests for $90,000. Also, Gov. Baker announced recently that the state is working to get tests distributed to schools at no cost but the timeline for that is unclear and may be a month or more.

The committee did not take a vote on purchasing tests but all agreed that Conti and his team should try to find a way to purchase them. They suggested that perhaps the town had extra American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds or that the school district may have other COVID-related funds. Conti said he would look into but agreed the district should not wait on the state for tests.

“I do think in the relatively near future manufacturing and distribution will catch up with need but we aren’t there yet,” he said. “We could order them and they could show up along with two pallets from the state at no cost and people will be upset but we are living with this situation.”