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At a time when many are scrounging for COVID-19 tests, hoping for the assurance of a negative hit, a new program has given hundreds of public school students the green light.

Test-To-Stay, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program adopted by the Wyoming Health Department, allows students to return to class after a COVID-19 exposure if they test negative before the morning bell. Since implementing the program Jan. 5 in Teton County, 409 students (and some staff members) have been tested, and only 35 have tested positive.

That means the vast majority of children who opted in to the program were given a ticket back to class, rather than a five-day quarantine. It also means that 35 infected people were sent home and prevented from infecting other children or teachers.

With hundreds of students already missing class because of the highly infectious omicron variant, preventing additional absences has been paramount for Teton County School District No. 1.

But implementing Test-To-Stay hasn’t come without challenges.

Risk of staff burnout

Administering rapid antigen tests requires nurses and staff to show up first thing in the morning to greet dozens of families in frigid parking lots. Trustees Bill Scarlett and Betsy Carlin have helped as parking attendants alongside Superintendent Gillian Chapman and Communications Director Charlotte Reynolds to expedite the process.

At the board’s Jan. 12 meeting Scarlett described the daily testing effort as “impressive” and efficient, but also implored parents to keep their students home with a runny nose so as not to burden the system.

Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell made a similar point at the meeting, suggesting the program was unsustainable at its current level.

There’s also concern that the school nurses are burning out with all the additional administrative and physical requirements of managing the region’s most infectious COVID surge.

Lead nurse Esther Ellis said a spiral of changes — from the CDC, the Teton school board and the virus itself — made it more difficult to respond to the rapid omicron surge.

“Not only were masks removed, but now we have a very contagious strain, and now we have absolutely no paperwork that was really appropriate for the situation,” she said. “It was a lot.”

Ellis said the optional mask policy was a “drastic” change: Instead of testing three or four close contacts, now a single infection pushed a dozen students into Test-To-Stay.

Each unmasked exposure required nurses to spend hours contact tracing while also fielding calls from worried parents struggling to understand the latest policies and occasionally wanting to know who exposed their child.

“That one I can’t answer,” Ellis said.

She said last Thursday — when the board reinstituted a temporary mask mandate — was the first time in two weeks her staff could take a breath.

Ellis said she’s “constantly amazed” by her nursing team, who regularly extend work days into the evening and early in the morning.

“Do I expect them to walk out on me? Absolutely not,” she said. “But I was worried.”

TCSD Test to Stay program

Teton County School District nurse Christine Houlton gives COVID tests Friday morning at the district administration building. The district recently implemented the state’s new Test-To-Stay program, which gives unvaccinated individuals who have had a close contact with a positive case the chance to return to classrooms if they test negative for the virus.

At the Jan. 12 meeting, Public Health Director Jodie Pond said school nurses are being pushed to a breaking point and suggested National Guard members could assist if necessary.

Ellis and the schools’ communications director said Monday that National Guard assistance would certainly help, not just with Test-To-Stay but likely with testing clinics throughout the valley.

Concerns about efficacy

Several parents wrote to the school board criticizing Test-To-Stay for discriminating against unvaccinated students.

Because omicron is infecting thousands of vaccinated people, critics said there shouldn’t be specific restrictions for those who haven’t taken the vaccine. And it’s not just the vaccine hesitant who are concerned: Due to Public Health’s limited capacity the majority of 5- to 11-year-olds still haven’t been able to complete their vaccine series in Teton County.

Trustee Scarlett also cast doubt about the efficacy of antigen tests, which is partly why he thinks people should just keep their children home rather than risk a false negative.

If students test positive, that result can be verified by a second test, but the same check isn’t there for negative tests.

Board Chairman Keith Gingery acknowledged Test-To-Stay has “some issues” on Jan. 12 but also said the double standard for unvaccinated and vaccinated students stems from the state’s quarantine policy, which requires unvaccinated students and staff who are exposed to stay home for five days. By testing daily, those unvaccinated people have a chance to stay in school.

“It’s busy for sure and takes quite a few people,” Ellis said of the program. “But it’s working.”

The future of masking

The school board will meet again Jan. 26 to reevaluate its mask policy.

For the first time in the pandemic, masks became optional on Jan. 3, and they stayed off until Jan. 13, when the board unanimously voted to reinstitute a temporary mandate.

During that period, exposures ballooned: During the first week back an average 17 staff members were out each day for COVID infection or exposure; by week two, that average was 33. Students averaged 133 daily COVID absences in week one; by the end of week two that average was 256.

Last Thursday student COVID absences outnumbered non-COVID absences 303 to 285. That equates to 20% of the student body missing school, with 1 in 10 kids out because of the virus.

Test-To-Stay saw 50 people with 11 positives on Monday, double the program’s original positivity rate. Due to incubation periods those infections likely came during the mask-optional reopening, Ellis said.

Other counties slow to adopt

Test-To-Stay allows students to remain in school while also helping prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to the Wyoming Health Department.

But so far, few school districts have picked up the program.

“We don’t have specific data on test-to-stay at this point or a definitive list of schools that may be working with that option,” department spokeswoman Kim Deti said in an email. “It’s my understanding that some schools in Albany and Fremont counties are working with this strategy.”

Albany County School District No. 1 started the program Jan. 5 along with a new optional masking policy, Laramie Live reported. Several Fremont school districts have changed operations in response to the omicron surge. COVID-19 testing is provided to staff and students “on a voluntary basis daily” at Fremont County School District No. 14.

Contact Evan Robinson-Johnson at 732-5901 or ERJ@jhnewsandguide.com.

Evan Robinson-Johnson covers issues residents face on a daily basis, from smoky skies to housing insecurity. Originally from New England, he has settled in east Jackson and avoids crowds by rollerblading through the alleyways.

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