Schools should consider routine COVID-19 testing to retain in-person learning and participation in extracurriculars, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
One of the CDC’s latest reports looked at COVID-19 testing strategies in Utah high schools, credited for saving over 100,000 in-person learning student-days and allowing for the completion of about 95% of scheduled high school sporting events.
Utah health and school officials tested two programs, “Test to Play” or biweekly mandated testing for participation in extracurriculars, and “Test to Stay” or school-wide testing to continue in-person learning as an alternative to switching to a remote learning model during an outbreak. A so-called outbreak threshold was defined as 15 cases within 14 days for schools with fewer than 1,500 students and staff members).
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From November to March, nearly 60,000 students were tested through the programs, and 1,886 (3.2%) received a positive test result. Test to Play was established at 66% of Utah’s 193 public high schools, while Test to Stay was implemented at 13 high schools.
“School-based COVID-19 testing should be considered part of a comprehensive prevention strategy to identify SARS-CoV-2 infections in schools and sustain in-person instruction and extracurricular activities,” CDC researchers wrote.
The state health department supplied schools with free rapid test kits and training, and in-school COVID-19 testing required parental permission for students.
If tests came back negative, students continued participating in extracurriculars. If tests returned positive, the student was required to isolate for 10 days, and close contacts were instructed to enter quarantine. Last September, Utah saw a quick rise in COVID-19 incidence among teenagers, with similar but less pronounced trends for kids aged 5 to 13. All the state’s extracurriculars were ordered to stop, with the exception of football, according to the report. The testing programs were piloted and implemented in late 2020 and January.
However, nearly half of 28 schools that exceeded outbreak thresholds decided to switch to remote learning, instead of running the Test to Stay program. The report noted low support for student testing from families, school boards and communities. There were also difficulties with staffing to handle the large-scale testing.
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“Growing evidence suggests that when schools implement recommended prevention strategies, including consistent and correct use of masks, physical distancing, hand hygiene, and room ventilation improvements, in-school COVID-19 transmission is infrequent while loss of in-person instruction can have detrimental effects on children’s education and their social and emotional well-being,” the report reads. “Consistent and correct mask use remains recommended by CDC for adults and children in schools, regardless of vaccination status.”
Though more sensitive tests may have picked up additional cases, the rapid testing offered a fast, cheap option without overwhelming labs, the CDC report said.