Student Well-Being

Can Testing Kids Exposed to COVID-19 Help Keep Them in School? New CDC Report Says Yes

By Alyson Klein — December 17, 2021 3 min read
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Schools should consider frequently testing students who have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus and allow them to stay in school, rather than sending them home to quarantine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends.

The recommendation is based in part on a pair of reports released Dec. 17 showing that the strategy had kept infection rates down—and kids in school—in Los Angeles County and Lake County, Ill., near Chicago.

“Test-to-stay” can be “another valuable tool” in school districts’ COVID-prevention arsenal, alongside vaccination, mask-wearing, screening tests, ventilation, and physical distancing, the agency said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, the Biden administration’s top education official, underscored that the approach allows kids to stay in classrooms, where most students learn best.

“Our students’ social and emotional growth and their academic development are best nurtured in-person in their classrooms with their peers and teachers,” he said in a statement. “It’s encouraging that test-to-stay strategies are proving effective both in limiting transmission of the virus and in ensuring that students can remain learning in school, so that entire classrooms or schools do not have to shut down when a case of COVID-19 is discovered in the school community.”

Test-to-stay, though, doesn’t appear to be widespread, despite federal money available for such programs, and President Joe Biden encouraging schools to consider the practice. In a nationally representative survey of school and district leaders by the EdWeek Research Center in early September, 52 percent said they don’t require any COVID testing of students or staff, a number that hasn’t changed since April.

Test-to-stay isn’t easy, especially for resource-strapped schools, one of the CDC reports acknowledged. The strategy puts more demands on staff members, requires rigorous contact tracing, and assumes schools or local health care providers have access to a sufficient number of tests. Schools also need to have enough space for physical distancing, particularly during lunch. The CDC Friday updated its recommendations on test-to-stay.

Assessing the impact of test-to-stay in California and Illinois

Before the start of the school year, Los Angeles County extended the test-to-stay option to 78 districts, and about 21 percent of schools decided to give it a try. (The county’s largest school district—Los Angeles Unified—took a pass.)

Schools participating in test-to-stay allowed kids who had come into close contact with COVID-19 to continue to attend school in-person if they remained asymptomatic, wore a mask while at school, got tested twice a week, and agreed to quarantine at home when not at school. Students who had been exposed to the virus could not participate in extracurricular activities or before- or after-school care until the quarantine period ended.

The result? COVID-19 cases didn’t increase in schools that implemented test-to-stay in late September and October of this year, the report found. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the county, students who had been exposed to the virus and were forced to stay out of class, lost a combined total of more than 92,000 in-person school days.

Similarly, the Lake County report found that test-to-stay resulted in “low secondary transmission” of the virus. Like Los Angeles County, Lake County allowed students who had come into contact with COVID-19 to remain in school if they wore masks, and got tested on four specific days after exposure. Unlike in Los Angeles County, Lake County students could continue to participate in school-based extra-curricular activities.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.6 million member American Federation of Teachers, hailed the findings and encouraged schools to embrace test-to-stay.

“The test-to-stay protocol is a promising strategy that can minimize quarantines and keeps students safely in classrooms with their peers and teachers, where they do best,” she said in a statement.

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