School Testing Skips Students

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – In the past two weeks, the number of infectious COVID cases in “Vermont Learning Communities” has more than doubled, to 35 per week, and more than tripled since the end of October. Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union (OSSU) Superintendent Adam Rosenberg said over the weekend that one person at the central office and one person at Wolcott Elementary School had tested positive. Calais Elementary School reported one case to the state and is going to remote learning until at least next Tuesday, according to media reports. St. Johnsbury Academy and the Saint Johnsbury School each reported three cases.

According to OSSU Nurse Leader Betty Stewart, the state’s mass surveillance testing last week did not include any of the approximately 900 OSSU students. 114 staff across the OSSU, approximately half of all staff, were tested upon request. The state “has not offered to test students as they have staff,” according to Rosenberg. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said on Monday that 9,500 staff were tested across the state and the number of positives was “in the low twenties.” Stewart said the school does not know how many students have been tested, only that none were tested by the state. She added that teachers and staff wanted “the same [testing] process as nursing homes and colleges” and for students to be included.

Dr. Levine said testing students “could certainly hold promise for the future, but we don’t see a lot of infections.” He attributed the low cases to precautions schools have taken. When asked why staff are being tested while students are not, Dr. Levine said in his experience school closures are “very rarely” caused by a student infection and the benefits of in-person learning for students were weighed against the risks.

But the belief that students are not likely to spread COVID-19 was contradicted by a study the CDC conducted in late June at a children’s overnight camp in Georgia. The study found COVID “spread efficiently in a youth-centric overnight setting, resulting in high attack rates among persons in all age groups.” The spread had occurred “despite efforts by camp officials to implement most recommended strategies to prevent transmission,” the study found. Asymptomatic infection was “common and potentially contributed to undetected transmission.” The investigation added to a growing body of evidence that children of all ages are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection, and contrary to early reports, could play an important role in transmission.

“The OSSU nurses agree that children are Petri dishes, and we know they spread it,” Nurse Leader Stewart said. “The guidelines from the state are just ‘guidelines’ and OSSU nurses do continuous research and have utilized our nursing assessment skills at the OSSU to keep students and children safe. The decisions made are not the same as the guidelines of the state.”

Stewart said there is a lot of pressure to return students to school as quickly as possible. “We had one parent pick the child up and called 15 minutes later and said symptoms improved.” The parent was told the child must be symptom free for 24 hours to return to class.

In Caledonia County, the second-highest case count was a tie between the age groups 10-19 and 30-39. In Lamoille County and Orleans County, cases among the 10-19 age group ranked fourth and fifth, respectively.