WESTERLY — A "test and stay" program that officials hope will be an effective tool to help keep students in grades pre-K to 6 in the classroom rather than home in quarantine after contact with COVID-19-positive individuals is underway in the town's elementary and middle school.
The program started Wednesday and was discussed by Gov. Dan McKee during his weekly COVID-19 update that was held at the state Department of Education office Wednesday to accentuate the Westerly program, which is serving as a pilot for the rest of the state. Education and health officials will monitor the program for 30 days and then decide whether to offer it in other districts and to extend Westerly's effort. McKee also discussed the program with The Sun during a telephone interview.
"One of our top priorities when I came into office has been getting students back into the classroom where they learn best," McKee said. "We know how crucial in-person is students and their learning, but also to their families."
Under the program, families can opt to have a student who was exposed at school to someone who has COVID-19 and is considered a close contact stay in school and be tested at school for seven days rather than miss classroom time due to a quarantine requirement. Fully vaccinated children are not required to quarantine.
Participating students can continue to ride the bus to school. Once they arrive at school each day, they will go to the designated test location and undergo a rapid test. Students will be required to refrain from non-school organized activities while participating in the program. Middle school students involved in the program and weekend school athletics will be tested by district officials if practices or games are scheduled then.
The tests that will be used are rapid antigen tests that take about 15 minutes to process. A nasal swab is used for the test, and the process will be supervised by a school nurse or trained health provider. Unlike some other types of COVID-19 tests, the tests are described as being painless and easy for students to do themselves. Once the results are known, students who test negative will be allowed to go to class. If a student tests positive for COVID-19, they must isolate at home.
McKee visited Dunn's Corners Elementary School about two weeks ago and has also stopped at other schools in the state. Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau and McKee discussed the idea of test-and-stay programs in late September during a telephone conversation.
"We've heard and seen that the academic, social, emotional, and physical health are all improved when kids are in the classroom, and that is why today's announcement is so important," McKee said.
McKee praised Garceau for pushing for the test-and-stay program and helping to implement it in Westerly.
"Thank you for your leadership," McKee said to Garceau.
While distance or virtual learning can be effective, McKee said students miss out on making social connections with their peers and teachers. Teaching and participation in subjects and activities such as music, art, and athletics suffers when students are not allowed on school property, McKee said.
Angélica Infante-Green, state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said the pilot program in Westerly will be used to shape similar efforts in other parts of the state.
"Every day counts," Infante-Green said.
Test and stay should be viewed, Infante-Green said, as part of a layered approach to the virus. Other protective measures, such as mask-wearing, social-distancing, contact-tracing and vaccines must continue, she said.
Rather than implement the program in all schools, the program will be limited to elementary and middle schools because there are fewer "operational challenges" than there would be at the high school level, Infante-Green said.
Garceau thanked McKee for taking his phone call on a Saturday when they first discussed the possibility of a test-and-stay program. Most often, Garceau said, students who are required to quarantine never test positive for the virus. While away from school, the students "miss critically important teaching, learning and and personal connections," Garceau said.
Test to stay will be especially important for the state's youngest children, who do not yet qualify to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Garceau said.
"As we always say, if it can be done, Westerly will lead, and we look forward to showing that it absolutely can be done and that it will be in the best interest of our students," Garceau said.