BARRE — Regular testing could provide a “game-changing” answer to a local school district that has been forced to send large numbers of students home for extended periods of time since classes resumed nearly month ago.
While other area school districts already have started voluntary surveillance testing for staff and students, interim Superintendent Chris Hennessey told members of the Barre Unified School Board on Thursday “capacity” problems have thus far slowed the roll out of a similar program in the two-town, three-school district anchored by Spaulding High School.
Hennessey said a recent hire should address that issue, and the district appears to be on track to offer the voluntary testing for all students and staff the week after next.
“We’re truly hoping this is a game-changing situation,” Hennessey said, acknowledging the concerns voiced by three parents who told the board they were troubled by how many students have been sidelined as a pandemic-related precaution less than four weeks into the school year.
Marcy Kreitz was one of them.
The mother of a first- and third-grader at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School, Kreitz urged the board to reconsider its policies surrounding contact tracing, which she argued has created an unnecessary hardship for many.
“I believe we are sending too many healthy children home,” she said. “Their education and mental health is suffering, not to mention financial stress on families who are unable to work during absences.”
Kreitz, who told board members she is seriously considering home-schooling her children, said something has to give.
“If children test positive, or have blatant symptoms of COVID, they should stay home,” she said. “But sending hundreds of kids home for 10 to 14 days who are perfectly healthy is not only unsustainable, but harmful to our children families and communities.”
Hennessey said the concerns expressed by Kreitz and fellow Barre Town parents, Marissa Green and Josh Howard, during Thursday’s virtual board meeting, weren’t lost on district administrators who have been forced to make what he characterized as “gut-wrenching” decisions with respect to student attendance in the wake of confirmed COVID cases.
“We fully empathize with what (impact) … the current situation has had on family life and working life,” Hennessey said, agreeing with pushing for a change in protocol.
According to Hennessey, continuing to rely solely on contact tracing was, in his view, “completely unsustainable” and “not effective.”
“We’re doing our best with what we’ve been handed, but it doesn’t feel good at all,” he said.
Hennessey told board members he’s hoping weekly surveillance testing will help – if only because it should shrink the time those considered “close contacts” of someone with confirmed case of COVID will be required to quarantine.
School surveillance tests are sent to an out-of-state lab that expedites the results – curing a problem school officials around the state have complained about.
“Once we get a negative result, we can have kids back right away,” Hennessey said, noting the inability to get “timely results” has exacerbated the problem Kreitz and others were right to be concerned about.
There is reason for hope surveillance testing will limit the time unvaccinated, symptom-free students are required to stay home.
Hundreds of students and staff in the Washington Central Unified Union School District already have been tested twice and those who volunteer will be again on Monday. Surveillance testing was launched in the Montpelier Roxbury Public School District on Monday and Barre School Director Chris Parker, who works in that district, said the results were back on Wednesday.
The logistics of starting a similar program in Barre’s three schools are being finalized and Hennessey said participation – particularly among the district’s young students who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated – will be strongly encouraged when the first round of what will be weekly tests are available early next month.
He also suggested the state Agency of Education may soon allow for the use of rapid antigen tests, which produce far faster, but less accurate results, to be used as a metric for determining whether students need to quarantine until a negative result from the more accurate PCR test is obtained.
“This is being really seriously considered and not like three or four months from now, like very, very soon,” he said, citing a conversation he had with agency officials early in the day.
Hennessey said he volunteered to pilot the program to Barre, but was told the plan is to make the program available to all districts.
“I let the powers that be know we are all in,” he said. “We want to be part of this.”
Meanwhile, Hennessey said it appears increasingly clear that vaccine mandate will extend to school district employees and already is the subject of negotiations with the union that represents teachers and support staff in the district.
Asked how many staff members already are vaccinated, Hennessey said he couldn’t say for certain, but barring a medical or religious exemption, all will have to be, unless they submit to weekly testing.
School Director Renee Badeau, who said she is experiencing lingering effects from a bad reaction to the vaccine, said the weekly surveillance testing would provide a convenient way to satisfy that requirement.
Hennessey said the district’s overriding objective is to keep students safe and in school. That has occasionally been a struggle in the school year that just started due to cases that have cropped up at all three schools.
So far, Hennessey said, there have been 24 confirmed COVID cases – many if not most of them at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School. However, while there is no evidence of in-school transmission contact tracing has, in some instances, required large numbers of students to be quarantined pending a negative test.
Like Kreitz, Green questioned that practice – one she said hits families least able to afford it the hardest.
“I am in human resources, and I’m telling you it does disrupt most of our lower income families when we’re doing this,” she said, suggesting they can’t fall back on paid time off, work from home, or afford child care.
Green isn’t one of them. However, she said she chose to home-school last year to avoid the “in-and-out disruption” her symptom-free son – now an eighth-grader – has experienced this year.
“We have to stop focusing on the one thing (COVID) and start focusing on the whole child,” she said, suggesting she was as worried about a spike in “substance abuse and suicide ideations” as she was about the novel coronavirus, or its delta variant.
Howard has three children at Barre Town’s pre-K-8 school. Two of them were deemed “close contacts” and while his seventh grade child was vaccinated his fifth-grader could be out of school for up to two weeks.
“Kids are missing school,” he said. “We’ve got to come up with a better plan.”
Hennessey assured the parents and the board that is his top priority.