Schools facing omicron variant are running short of tests

By: - January 4, 2022 5:48 am
A high school nursing office

Superintendents throughout the state have made it clear that more tests are needed amid a surge in COVID cases. (Merrimack Valley High School courtesy photo)

It’s the item on every superintendent’s wish list: more tests.

Ten minutes into a monthly Zoom call with Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut Monday, school leaders across the state sang a similar refrain: Cases of COVID-19 are going up, and their schools need more tests. 

“We would like more tests and would use them!” wrote Dan Morrissey, head of school of Crossroads Academy in Lyme, in a comment to the commissioner. 

“Newmarket is waiting for tests to be available,” said Susan Givens, superintendent of the Newmarket School District.

“More tests please,” added Leah Holz, superintendent of the Monroe Consolidated School. 

As the 2021 holiday break fades into memory, New Hampshire schools are grappling with the return of students, the spread of the more infectious omicron variant, and the release of a string of new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in recent weeks that could change how the schools tackle the pandemic. 

Schools are still weathering staff shortages, as teachers become sick and isolate. Superintendents are vowing to maintain in-person learning as long as possible. But every strategy to fight the virus – including those recommended by federal authorities – depends on the availability of rapid tests.

And while the state has rolled out programs to provide the tests, each relies on a national supply that has proven volatile.

“OK, everybody needs tests – got it,” Edeblut said, reacting to the chorus. “… We will get on it, and we will get some more tests,” he added. 

The testing shortage comes at a key juncture for schools. The rise of omicron cases has prompted some states and cities to delay returning to school this week, or to implement mask requirements. 

At the same time, the CDC is promoting a different approach: “test to stay.” Under that strategy, schools may allow children to return to in-person classes even if they were exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus – as long as the exposed child has no symptoms and continues to test negative for COVID. The “test to stay” approach would eliminate many of the mandatory isolation periods that require children who have been exposed to go home until they can produce a negative test. 

In a pair of studies released Dec. 17, the CDC found that school districts that had implemented “test to stay” saw lower average daily case rates and were able to keep schools open longer. 

The approach is enticing for New Hampshire schools, but it requires near-continuous access to tests. While some schools have already obtained tests through a state program launched earlier in the year, others have been slower to receive them, facing delays in getting the necessary certification to administer them. And those New Hampshire superintendents who do have tests on hand are unsure whether the state’s program restrictions allow them to be used for “test to stay.” 

So far, the answers are unclear. The state’s initiative – the “Safer at School” screening program – was originally intended to provide tests for asymptomatic students as a way of catching hidden clusters before they became outbreaks. Given the surge in positive cases through the late fall and and winter, Edelblut said schools could likely use the tests however they wanted.

But he also noted federal restrictions governing the program could complicate matters, and directed superintendents to Deputy Commissioner Christine Brennan. 

Meanwhile, New Hampshire schools are wrestling with another new guideline from the CDC: a shortening of the recommended isolation period for those who become infected. On Dec. 27, the department reduced the number of days recommended for those with COVID-19 to isolate themselves, from 10 to five. 

The reduction, which has drawn some criticism, could prompt schools to require teachers and staff to return sooner after becoming infected. 

But New Hampshire’s Department of Education is not recommending that schools follow those guidelines, Edelblut said Monday, noting that the state’s Department of Health and Human Services is still waiting for the CDC to fully elaborate on the guidelines. 

“We don’t have anything back from CDC,” Edelblut said. “But even the CDC may be revisiting that particular policy to figure out what that looks like and how that would be implemented.” 

As schools attempt to scale up their testing efforts, they’ve run into other difficulties with some of New Hampshire’s programs.

“They limit the amount you can get so it increases the number of runs to pick up test kits,” said Jennifer Gillis, assistant superintendent of Manchester School District.

“Yes, we would like a higher limit to make the trip worth it,” added Julie King, superintendent of SAU 3 in Berlin.

Gillis added the home tests provided by the state in December were limited – up to 40 per school in total. 

Some officials, like Willow Graham, director of health services at High Mowing School in Wilton, requested that the “Safer at School” tests be made available to children stuck at home – currently they are available only to children in school. 

Others, such as Lisa Witte, superintendent of Monadnock Regional School District, wanted an option for parents to take their quarantined children to get tested at school.

“I have families keeping their kids home because they are sick, and under (Safer at School) we can’t have the parent come over with the child for us to test,” she wrote. 

The test supply delay is unlikely to abate soon. The Department of Education relies on the Department of Health and Human Services, and DHHS must get the tests from manufacturers themselves, using funding from the National Institutes of Health and the CDC, and decide how to distribute them. 

Given all of that, Edelblut said the state is going to remain short for now. 

“There’s no more that I’ve been notified of that are in the state at this point time for distribution,” he said. “But I’m hearing loud and clear that we need a whole bunch of tests.”

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]