Some Oregon school districts pause, ignore, or lack supplies for test-to-stay protocol

More than a dozen school districts say they lack supplies, staff, wherewithal or need to roll out the program that tests exposed students regularly to avoid quarantines

By: - January 10, 2022 5:30 am

Testing meant to detect unvaccinated students exposed to Covid-19 in schools is hitting supply and staffing challenges, according to school district leaders. 

As Covid-19 cases declined in November, the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Education Department announced a new protocol to keep more students in the classroom. Under the program, unvaccinated students who are exposed to Covid-19 at school can avoid quarantine if they show no symptoms and test negative on a rapid antigen test. Students get tested again a week later and either quarantine for 10 days if positive or continue on in school if negative. 

Previously, exposed students had to automatically quarantine for 10 days, taking them out of classroom instruction. But as students return to classrooms after the winter break and as the omicron variant of the virus spreads at high rates, some districts have paused or abandoned the test-to-stay protocol before they even got to start it. 

Prior to the Christmas holiday, the Capital Chronicle emailed 190 of the state’s 216 school and education service districts about whether they had the supplies and staff to implement the new testing procedure. Of them, representatives of 77 school districts responded.

About a quarter of those reported they were dealing with supply and staffing shortages or had decided not to deploy the new testing procedure.

A spokesperson from the Oregon Health Authority, which is charged with supplying schools with the tests they need, said the agency has no unfilled requests for supplies from schools.

Staffing problems

When the test-to-stay protocol was rolled out in November, the state Education Department said that 80% of schools were already carrying out testing programs that allowed students to return to school earlier than 10 days if they continued to test negative after a week. 

At a press conference announcing test-to-stay, the department’s director, Colt Gill, said quarantines of 10 to 14 days for being in a classroom with a student who had tested positive were disrupting learning, and that test-to-stay would keep more students in schools. 

Gill had warned that one challenge would be having enough health care staff at schools to administer the new tests. 

“Some schools may seek volunteer support. Please give up your time if you’re able,” he said at the conference. 

Beaverton Public Schools had hoped to implement test-to-stay beginning Jan. 3, but on Wednesday, the district emailed employees to say they would hold off due to lack of health care staff.

They wrote that they couldn’t hire enough qualified people to fill vacancies.

“To test and administer this program requires a great deal of people power. Due to Covid-related absences, we currently don’t have enough nurses or health assistants to run the program,” the note said.

District officials hope to try and restart the program by January 24, and until then, will require students to quarantine for eight to 10 days if exposed to someone with the virus.

Opting out 

Other districts have opted out of test-to-stay, citing the complication of coordinating the testing regimen, the lack of need due to the small size of the student population or because of fears that testing supplies will be too difficult to procure. 

In an email, Superintendent Michael Lasher of the Douglas Education Service District, representing 13 school districts in southwest Oregon, said they were not going to participate because quarantine guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were changing rapidly, shortening quarantine recommendations to five days, and because they hadn’t had much student to student transmission. 

“That may change with omicron’s spread,” Lasher wrote.

In the Klamath County School District, Superintendent Glen Szymoniak wrote, “We already had more robust procedures and effective procedures to allow people to stay than the test-to-stay. Our county did not apply to conduct that program because of the level of complication.”

In the Cove School District in northeast Oregon, where there are just over 270 students enrolled, school officials opted out due to their small size, according to their Superintendent Earl Pettit.

Supply shortages

In Coos Bay, Superintendent Bryan Trendell said December preparation for January implementation of test-to-stay was nearly stymied by a lack of testing supplies in his district and in the entire South Coast Education Service District, representing nine other school districts. The Coos Bay School District received a needed shipment over the break and will work with employees at Coos Health and Wellness, a local public health provider, to staff the testing program.

In the Greater Albany School District, schools were averaging about 15 to 20 test-to-stay cases each week in December, and came close to running out of supplies. Superintendent Rob Saxton said they received an order right before the holiday break that allowed them to keep the program running and they’ve ordered more in anticipation of an uptick in cases throughout January.

Rudy Owens, a public affairs specialist at the Oregon Health Authority, said it takes seven to 10 days to get testing supplies to schools that request them.

In the Oakridge School District southeast of Eugene, Superintendent Reta Doland said they have decided not to implement test-to-stay because of worry about getting supplies.

Doland said school employees are testing students who are symptomatic and with outbreaks among athletic teams. She said she is ordering more supplies to continue the district’s current testing model in anticipation of a spike in cases due to the omicron variant.

Fluctuating need

So far, school leaders who responded said they’ve had little need to use test-to-stay, and that most in school Covid-19 testing has had to happen among sports teams where a student or students have been exposed.

On Monday, the state Education Department recommended that schools pause extracurricular activities where masking and distancing can’t be guaranteed. In the North Bend School District, Superintendent Kevin Bogatin wrote in an email that he was nervous about the omicron variant’s spread but pleased that test-to-stay was shortening quarantine times for students. 

“Anything we can do to keep kids and staff in school is a plus,” he wrote.

In the Fern Ridge School District west of Eugene, Superintendent Gary Carpenter said that as more students get vaccinated, they haven’t had to use test-to-stay because students who have been exposed were vaccinated and test-to-stay doesn’t apply. 

In Roseburg Public Schools, the testing protocol hasn’t been too helpful since so many of the Covid-19 exposures students have reported occurred at home, not at school. 

Superintendent Jared Cordon said,“It’s more common that we have parents call and say, ‘she’s positive.’ We isolate the kid, make sure protocols are met, and If another kid shows symptoms then we go quarantine.”

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.