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Hawai‘i public schools consider test-to-stay COVID-19 policy

LIHU‘E — The feasibility of a test-to-stay model for Hawai‘i public schools is on the mind of administrators and officials.

Test-to-stay programs allow students and staff members who have had a school associated close COVID-19 contact to continue to attend school in person if they test negative. It includes that precautions, like proper masking, are taken after exposure. Close contacts then are tested multiple times for COVID-19 in the week following exposure and are monitored for symptoms.

School districts across the country have already implemented these measures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that both test-to-stay programs and 10-day quarantines for close contacts are equal options for schools.

Last Friday, U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) delivered an open letter to Hawai‘i Department of Education Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi encouraging test-to-stay policies.

“With this new protocol, we can recoup thousands of days of learning,” Schatz said in the letter. “We have to be as aggressive as possible in preventing learning loss and giving every student an opportunity to learn as much as they can.”

HIDOE and Hawai‘i State Teachers Association are in agreement that minimizing time away from school is a priority. But for test-to-stay to happen, testing capacity would need to be ramped up significantly.

There is currently a testing disparity between complex areas offering in-school testing. The Kaua‘i Complex Area is on the higher end of in school accessibility with 81% of schools offering testing, according to a report released by HIDOE prior to last week’s Board of Education meeting.

Testing gaps would be a concern should the district participate in a test-to-stay model, as it could lead to equity problems for students living in areas that have less access to in-school testing, HSTA president Osa Tui suggested.

And to offer more testing, additional staffing would be necessary.

Staffing is a problem district-wide across several departments. Some of the most notable staffing shortages have been with bus drivers and substitute teachers, with 15% of bus driver positions vacant and 12% of substitute teacher requests going unfilled this school year, according to the recent HIDOE report.

While HIDOE has struggled to fill current job openings, it has had some relief in the school-based testing programs by working with the National Kidney Foundation and soon with CVS (Longs Drugs).

Some schools are unable to offer testing not because of staffing but rather because there is not enough parent buy-in. Testing requires parent consent, and some providers will not establish school-based testing if a school has not met a minimum number of consents.

“By watching the vaccination rates, not only at a school-based vaccination clinic, but also within a community, we knew that certain communities would be reluctant to participate in any kind of testing,” Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami said at last week’s Board of Education meeting.

HIDOE did make COVID-19 testing kits available at every school should a spike in COVID encourage more parental consent for testing, but without consent, those tests could go unused.

Testing models vary from school to school, with some offering testing weekly and others prioritizing testing before school events.

To participate in the test-to-stay model, schools would need to test close contacts at least twice a week and the results would need to be available in time for positive cases to be identified early.

HIDOE is doing some rapid testing with results available in 15-30 minutes, however school-based PCR tests need to be analyzed in a lab. With limited capacity in Hawai‘i labs, most of those tests are sent to the mainland and take about three days to return, which would be too slow for schools to act on in a TTS setting.

While the logistics of implementing TTS appear daunting, HIDOE and HSTA representatives have voiced that it is time to start thinking about the pandemic longterm.

“CDC and other reports (this is) the new normal. We will be living with airborne viruses, for the rest of our lives probably,” said Unebasami. “We do need to start thinking about what does it mean to have a school health system that really is proactive and thoughtful and is able to really care for the students and our families and our staff in our schools.”

HIDOE is in discussion with the state Department of Health on what a test-to-stay program would look like in Hawai‘i, Hayashi said.

For Tui, the sooner test-to-stay can be implemented safely and equitably, the better.

“There’s still time (to prepare),” Tui said this week. “Schools are in winter break right now. The department still has two weeks to try and get this wrapped up and ready to go and students return in early January.”
Source: The Garden Island

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