Letter: Our students cannot afford more absences

Published 10:28 am Sunday, April 17, 2022

Dr. Robert R. Redfield Jr.

Former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2018-2021

Louisiana has seen an encouraging drop in COVID-19 cases on public school campuses, which has prompted the state’s public health officials to revise quarantine policy in K-12 schools with an eye toward decreasing missed classroom time.

Email newsletter signup

State public health officials announced three options for K-12 schools to choose from based on the needs of their community. These are good, common-sense steps to put kids first. The overall plan is solid. The challenge now is to go beyond basic flow-chart guidelines, to do even more to keep kids in schools, and to keep COVID-19 out of them.

The first option hews most closely to CDC recommendations. Only unvaccinated students must quarantine after a close exposure. However, the guidance still makes a test optional after five days of quarantine, noting that “limited availability of diagnostic tests may make it difficult for an asymptomatic individual to find testing.”

The third option changes the rules for schools that require universal masking. Potentially exposed students and staff never need to quarantine if they don’t show symptoms. Unfortunately, the inconsistency of protectiveness among most masks means too many sick students will stay in school, especially if we see another surge from new, highly transmissible mutations of SARS-CoV-2.

Only the second option presents a true “Test-to-Stay” solution, which is the most effective way to keep kids in school safely.

An optimal Test-to-Stay protocol conducts routine testing of students and staff twice a week to determine who is asymptomatically infected. Those who test negative stay in the classroom, while those who test positive remain home until they are no longer positive. This protocol would effectively hone in on getting positive infections out of the transmission cycle while keeping schools open.

This model has proven to be effective and Louisiana has resources to carry out a robust Test-to-Stay initiative. The state has access to ample ESSER funding that has been largely underutilized.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 preparedness has been a low budgeting priority, and this could have deleterious implications as new variants emerge. For example, across all the 58 schools that make up the Calcasieu Parish school district, no ESSER III dollars have been allocated to any category related to COVID-19 training, testing, vaccination, contact tracing, or mitigation.

The fastest, safest, and most durable way back to normalcy is to conduct more tests, more often. Louisiana should lean on the expertise not only of its government health officials, but of private sector partners who have the proven capabilities to provide tests to K-12 schools. Schools and their associated local public health departments need to utilize all the tools available to get the job done.

Our kids cannot afford more absences. While COVID cases may be plummeting, it is incumbent on us to avoid plummeting academic scores within our school systems.

Louisiana’s underutilized $3.5 billion in federal assistance has the potential to proactively make Test-to-Stay a widespread reality. Let’s use all the resources to get it done!