Everything You Need To Know About “Test To Stay” Now That School’s Back In Session
Here’s what this new strategy could mean for you and your child.
New year, new variant. At this point, parents are understandably tired of figuring out how yet another new form of covid will impact their kids’ school year. So, as omicron spreads and breakthrough infection rates are rising, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) new Test to Stay program, an alternative to automatic quarantines for anyone exposed, adds yet another layer of questions to an already confusing new school semester.
Here’s the good news: Studies show that schools using Test to Stay strategies have low levels of transmission between students, which is promising. But with highly contagious omicron in the mix, do experts think Test to Stay is still the way forward? Romper spoke with two physicians who think it’s a great way to keep children in school — as long as it’s not the only protective measure in place.
What Is Test To Stay?
The goals of Test to Stay are simple:
- Control the spread of Covid-19 in schools, and
- Keep kids in an in-person learning setting as much as possible.
“Test to Stay is a strategy that uses regular testing as opposed to quarantining everyone who has come into contact with an individual who was exposed to Covid-19,” said Vivek Cherian, M.D., a Chicago-based internal medicine physician, in an interview with Romper. “If the contacts are asymptomatic and test negative for Covid-19 at least two times in a seven-day period, they can continue in-person learning. However, if they test positive, they need to isolate themselves.”
Here’s how the CDC defines Test to Stay:
“Test to Stay combines contact tracing and serial testing (testing that is repeated at least twice during a seven-day period post-exposure) to allow asymptomatic school-associated close contacts who are not fully vaccinated and do not test positive for SARS-CoV-2 to continue in-person learning.”
To translate: if your child is unvaccinated and exposed to someone who is covid-positive at school, they should get tested twice in the following seven days. As long as the results are negative and they have no symptoms, they can keep coming to class. (Vaccinated adults and kids do not need to quarantine after exposure, so this strategy doesn’t apply to them. More on that below.)
What Does Test To Stay Mean For Kids & Parents?
“Test to Stay programs should help limit the disruption for kids who aren’t yet fully vaccinated,” Cherian said. “Without a program like this, an unvaccinated child would have to stay at home and isolate, which of course could happen quite frequently. But now the goal would be to allow them to stay in school.”
Your child’s school implementing Test to Stay does not mean they can skip masks and other Covid precautions. The CDC still recommends universal indoor masking regardless of vaccination status, keeping three feet of distance between students in the classroom, regular handwashing, disinfecting shared spaces, and staying home at the first sign of sickness.
“I think when you do testing as a part of other strategies, it has great potential of working, and working well,” says Mobeen Rathore, M.D., chief of pediatric infectious disease and immunology at Wolfson Children’s Hospital of Jacksonville. “Think of it as a car. The vaccine is the engine, then you have testing, social distancing, masking, and good hygiene techniques. You can have all four tires, but without the engine it’s not going to be a very good car, is it? And with an engine and no tires, it’s also useless. It’s a matter of doing all these things in a manner that they work together synergistically.”
Schools implementing Test to Stay policies should also not give parents a false sense of security. Rathore urges anyone who has not vaccinated themselves or their children to do so.
“Testing happens after the exposure has occurred, but everything else happens before. Tests are not the answer. The answer is vaccines. We should not be distracted. I would caution parents that you and your children need to be vaccinated.”
If My Child Is Vaccinated, Will They Have To Test To Stay?
The CDC website specifies that fully vaccinated children do not have to quarantine after being exposed to covid, and are not included in Test to Stay procedures. The goal of Test to Stay is to keep unvaccinated students from waffling between in-person and virtual learning unless they test positive.
“Test to Stay benefits unvaccinated students the most because children who are vaccinated do not have to quarantine after an exposure,” says Cherian.
While omicron may be making headlines for being more contagious than past variants — and causing higher rates of breakthrough infections — Rathore says this approach is still safe.
“We need to get to a place where we can get as much normalcy as possible. Since we know the vaccines work, I think that’s a good strategy. The omicron variant is much more contagious, but it doesn’t make you any sicker. The numbers of deaths and hospitalizations are not proportionate to Delta,” he said.
Will Test To Stay Be Used In Every Grade?
Test to Stay is currently being recommended by the CDC for grades K through 12.
The CDC hasn’t recommended the strategy for children in day care and early education programs. Rathore explains that since Test to Stay protocol is built around being vaccinated or unvaccinated, it’s not applicable to age groups too young to receive their shots yet.
Will Test To Stay Covid Tests Be Done At School?
Whether your child’s school will provide covid tests in the event of exposure, or if you’ll have to take them to a doctor’s office or community test site, varies by school and district. The CDC encourages schools to ensure testing is accessible to all students, but of course, resources vary widely across the country.
“This likely will depend on individual school districts, but I anticipate as tests become more and more readily available, hopefully schools will offer them in addition to having to go to your doctor’s office or a specific site for testing,” Cherian says.
Be sure to check with your kid’s school to ask about test availability on campus or in the community. Rathore says that students who are testing after exposure will need PCR tests, as rapid tests (the kind available over-the-counter to do at home) are still not as reliable.
“Unfortunately, PCR tests are hard to come by right now. There may be places for antigen tests that are easier to find,” he says.
Vivek Cherian, M.D., Chicago-based internal medicine physician
Mobeen Rathore, M.D., chief of pediatric infectious disease and immunology at Wolfson Children’s Hospital of Jacksonville