Rochester Public Schools are expanding a COVID-19 testing approach to stay, after a trial at three schools kept unvaccinated students in classrooms for 602 days when they would otherwise have been quarantined.
District-wide expansion will require a stockpile of testing kits, but Superintendent Kent Pekel said the testing has proven the benefits of allowing students exposed to COVID-19 to find their way into classrooms by anybody.
“We just can’t continue to waste the learning time we spent with kids who don’t actually have COVID and who might never get it,” he said.
The test to stay has been little used but gained attention last month when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released studies showing it worked and advice for schools on how to adopt it. The concept is simple: instead of quarantining exposed students until their infection status is known, schools allow them in class as long as regular test results remain negative.
The test to stay is an option only for unvaccinated students, as vaccinated students are already allowed to stay in class after viral exposure.
Schools in the Albert Lea area implemented the approach in November after an outbreak of COVID-19 in early fall disrupted the start of classes. About half of its students are not vaccinated. Other districts did not have enough supplies to do so until this week, when the state secured an additional 1.8 million rapid tests for schools.
Northfield Public Schools are launching the test to stay this month after receiving 4,000 tests. Disruptive quarantines have been most common in elementary schools, where younger students are exposed to close contact as they are unmasked in cafeterias, Northfield Superintendent Matt Hillmann said.
“They take longer to eat,” he said. “The lunch part is where the greatest risk is.”
COVID-19 cases involving contagious students in pre-K-12 schools remained at high levels ahead of the holidays. The Minnesota Department of Health on Thursday reported a preliminary total of 890 cases in the week ending December 18 and 1,378 in the week ending December 11, up from 3,699 in the week ending ending November 20.
Health officials fear school cases may rise again due to the rapidly spreading omicron variant and lower COVID-19 vaccination rate among eligible school-aged children 5 years and older. Overall, on Thursday, the Department of Health reported an additional 6,936 infections and 62 deaths from COVID-19, bringing the state’s pandemic total to 1,056,236 infections and 10,733 deaths.
“The omicron virus… is growing relatively rapidly,” Gov. Tim Walz said, speaking Thursday at a new Free State COVID-19 test site at the Minnesota National Guard Armory in Anoka. “The good news is that it appears to be less dangerous, but the bad news is that it appears to be much more contagious.”
Hospitalizations for COVID-19 declined in late December but increased in January – reaching 1,469 on Wednesday. State officials are bracing for an extreme spike in infections and hospitalizations over the next month, but they hope the omicron wave peaks as quickly as in South Africa, where the variant was discovered.
Genomic sequencing of a small sample of positive infections found 281 cases involving omicron in Minnesota, but preliminary analysis suggests the variant is responsible for 90% of new COVID-19 cases in the state.
The state has expanded testing sites to help people find out quickly if they are infected and has encouraged more Minnesotans to get the COVID-19 vaccine and boosters that significantly reduce the risk of serious illness, d hospitalization and death.
Minnesota also received its first bi-weekly shipment of the new Pfizer and Merck COVID-19 antiviral pills. The initial 3,200 doses went to providers serving the most needy patients and most at risk of serious illness, said state health commissioner Jan Malcolm.
Severe cases of COVID-19 have been less common in children throughout the pandemic. However, the rate of pediatric hospitalizations has increased nationwide since omicron replaced delta as the dominant coronavirus strain.
“The delta was primarily a disease of the lower respiratory tract,” said Dr Gregory Poland, head of the Mayo Clinic’s COVID-19 vaccine research group. “Omicron tends… to be more in the upper airways. This equates to decreased morbidity in adults who have large upper airways and is markedly negative in young children who have narrow upper airways.”
The Rochester To Stay Test was launched in November at Harriet Bishop, Willow Creek Middle, and John Marshall Elementary Schools. The district sent enough kits home with participating parents to test the children for a week after the virus exposure. Parents recorded test results on a website each morning to obtain permission for their children to attend class.
Results varied by school, with the option being more popular among parents with children in elementary school. Seventy of Harriet Bishop’s 74 students accepted the test offer to stay, and only three tested positive, forcing them to self-isolate at home.
None of the elementary school parents missed daily tests or reports – which would have forced their children to self-quarantine. Primary school children spent 229 days in class that would otherwise have been quarantined.
Most students at risk for COVID-19 are identified a day or two after viral exposure, and their seven-day quarantine periods often fall on weekends, said Leah Bancroft, district health services coordinator. . As a result, most of the children in the test-to-stay pilot only needed to submit test results three mornings before class.
Bancroft said attendance may decrease when the test-to-stay approach is used district-wide, as staff will not be as able to explain the benefits and encourage parents to maintain the daily report.
Malcolm said she supports test programs to stay which reduce student quarantines, although they use a lot of testing. She added that the CDC is calling for the universal use of masks in schools to reduce the risk of potentially infected students spreading the virus during their test periods to stay.
Test-to-stay programs may become easier under CDC guidelines released this week, which shortened the recommended quarantine time to five days for asymptomatic people who then wear masks for the next five days.
Malcolm said Minnesota will follow CDC guidelines and apply to pre-K-12 schools. Isolation times for people who test positive are also shortened from 10 days to five days for asymptomatic people. Negative tests are recommended to conclude quarantines or shorter isolates but are not required, Malcolm said.
The Albert Lea District is preparing to shorten the length of the stay and quarantine test to five days in response to CDC guidelines and will also provide testing to infected students on the fifth day of their isolation, Superintendent Michael Funk said. Negative test results will allow them to return to class on the sixth day, while positive results will require them to remain in isolation for 10 days.