EAST GREENWICH – The district will soon be offering routine and voluntary asymptomatic testing, according to Superintendent Alexis Meyer.
The voluntary testing program for students and staff members “will help us identify positive cases and keep our schools open,” Meyer told members of the school committee on Tuesday evening.
Planning for this program only began on Monday and will continue until students are back in the classroom on Jan. 11, but Meyer has already made a point to stress that this testing will not be available for individuals who are experiencing symptoms.
The hope is that all schools will participate at least once a week. Students and staff members who wish to partake will receive a rapid test from BinaxNow, and will have their results in 15 minutes. According to Meyer, these rapid tests will only require “a slight swab in both nostrils,” as opposed to some more invasive testing.
Middle and high school students will be able to swab themselves, but students at the elementary level will be receiving assistance from the school nurses. The district’s school nurses, who were able to receive their first vaccine doses last week, will begin their training on Friday.
Although this program will be voluntary and require families to fill out consent forms, Meyer said the district plans to make testing mandatory for student athletes.
“We’re considering weekly testing for our athletes,” she said, “and perhaps more than once a week during our season.”
School committee member William Hangan questioned if other school districts will be expecting student athletes to receive testing if they wish to compete, but according to Meyer, this has already become a standard practice throughout the state.
School Committee Chair Anne Musella also posed a question to Meyer regarding the accuracy of the rapid tests. School Nurse Denise Sullivan, who was watching the meeting via Zoom and has a working relationship with school committee member Alyson Powell from their work on the reopening steering committee, reached out to share the numbers.
According to Suvillan, false positive test results are incredibly rare. And while the possibility of a false negative result is statistically more likely, rapid tests are considered to be 80 percent accurate.
“It’s very useful for detecting asymptomatic positives sooner rather than later,” Powell said.
One of the questions Powell raised was the positivity of returning to in-person learning a few days later than planned. At the moment, students are in the midst of a temporary, 8-day distance learning period, which has received mixed reviews from members of the community.
Although there are no plans to delay the return to in-person learning, Meyer said that data shows it was clearly the right move for the district.
Since moving to distance learning, the district has learned of numerous new COVID-19 cases, including 14 teachers and 48 students. According to Meyer, there are at least 5 other cases she’s aware of that have not yet made it onto the Rhode Island Department of Health’s lists.
“It’s clear that we are seeing a post-holiday surge,” she said.
Had the schools remained opened, “there would have been a significant impact.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to endorse a 14-day quarantine as the safest protocol, according to Meyer, but have released some more flexible guidance in recent weeks. Under current Rhode Island Department of Health guidelines, close contacts can come out of isolation after seven days, provided that they receive a negative test result after five days of quarantine.
Despite these slightly relaxed guidelines, East Greenwich Public Schools will continue to take a more conservative approach. Any student who has been a close contact of someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19 — meaning they came within six feet of the individual for 15 minutes or more — will be required to quarantine for 10 days. Students will only be able to return if they receive a negative COVID-19 test taken after seven days.
If a member of a student’s household tests positive, the required isolation period is even longer. In addition to staying home with their infected family member for 10 days, the student will then have to quarantine for an additional 14 days.
The reason for this, according to Meyer, is because family members could potentially contract the virus during that first 10-day window.
At the moment, the district is also requiring students who travel to a location with a positivity rate of greater than 5 percent to quarantine for 14 days.
“It’s a conservative approach, but this allows us to keep our schools open,” Meyer said. “Using these mitigation strategies have been successful thus far.”
Community member Jaclyn Boichat questioned the “inequities” between the quarantine periods for students who’ve traveled, as opposed to those who were a close contact. She specifically asked if the distinct was trying to prohibit families from traveling.
“I don’t see how that’s fair if we’re giving one group of students the option to test out, but a different group of students don’t have that same option,” Boichat said.
“Why is that the rule for students who have been in contact with someone with COVID, and not the rule for students who may have been in contact with someone with COVID?”
Meyer stated that none of the decisions she’s had to make this year have been easy or made lightly, but they have been made with the best interest of the school community in mind.
“The district made a decision to err on the side of caution with regard to travel, especially given the new variant that’s out there,” Meyer said.
“I would say that I know they’re not easy decisions for families to make, but it is not recommended that travel happen at this time,” she added.
Boichat, who originally thought the district had a 7-day test out period for close contacts before hearing Meyer’s update, said she now respects the district’s decision, but hopes this could be readdressed before February or April vacation if case numbers improve.