New Jersey schools may begin piloting new testing programs when schools open again in January that would allow students exposed to COVID-19 to stay in the classroom even if a classmate or teacher tests positive, state officials said.
The state is working with school nurses to develop “test and stay” programs in some school districts as early as January, state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Monday.
“We’re working with the school nurses. We have developed a proposal for a pilot. We’re looking at that for the restart after the holiday break,” Persichilli said at a press briefing in Trenton.
“Test and stay” or “test to stay” programs allow students who were in close contact with someone who tested positive to take a rapid COVID tests over several days at school before entering the classroom. If they test negative, they can stay at school and do not need to quarantine.
The programs — which are currently being used in California, Illinois, Georgia and other states — allow schools to stop requiring mandatory seven-to-10 day quarantines every time a student is within three feet for 15 minutes or more of a classmate or teacher who tested positive at school.
If implemented in New Jersey, “test and stay” programs could keep tens of thousands of students from having to miss in-person classes. But the programs could also require already burdened school districts to add more staff and acquire rapid testing kits to run on-site testing locations that could potentially be screening dozens or hundreds of students before class every day.
Persichilli did not give details on how the program would work, who would pay for them or address whether there would be enough tests available.
President Joe Biden’s administration called on schools last week to consider “test to stay” programs as part of a White House plan to battle COVID this winter.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a White House briefing that the programs were “encouraging.” Studies show that “test to stay” keeps students in school without compromising other kids’ health, she said.
“CDC is updating our materials to help schools and parents know how to best implement this promising and now-proven practice, along with our multilayer prevention strategies that will help keep our children in the classroom safely,” Walensky said.
New Jersey had been previously looking at “test and stay” options and the state is open to trying it out in schools, Gov. Phil Murphy said at his press briefing in Trenton Monday.
“We were, I think, largely inching toward that pilot before the CDC’s guidance and I think that only bolsters our direction,” Murphy said.
The pilot programs come as New Jersey is dealing with a surge of COVID cases in schools and an uptick in the number of students told to quarantine. Several lawmakers have called on the state to adopt “test and stay” programs to keep healthy kids in class and keep working parents from having to find childcare for students told to stay home for a week or more.
“A negative test is a negative test,” state Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, said in a letter to Murphy last week. “I truly believe this is a suitable compromise that protects the mental health and learning experience of the child, while simultaneously protecting overall public health.”
State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, also called for the state to use rapid testing to eliminate quarantines for healthy students.
“Implementing test-to-stay in our schools would be one of the most beneficial policies enacted since the beginning of the pandemic,” O’Scanlon said. “It just makes sense. Students need it, schools need it, and parents need it.”
Under the previous state school health guidelines, unvaccinated students who are “close contacts” — meaning they spent at least 15 minutes within three feet of a classmate or teacher who tested positive — should quarantine for 14 days.
There was no option for students quarantining 14 days to go back to school earlier, even if the student tested negative and had no symptoms.
But state health officials revised those guidelines last week. Under the new recommendations, students who are close contacts can return to school in seven days if they test negative or 10 days if they don’t get a test.
There were 5,632 new student cases of COVID and 1,315 new staff cases for the week ending Dec. 12, according to data released Monday on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.
That is 5.25 cases per 1,000 students and 6.81 cases per 1,000 staff, the data said. The rate of cases per 1,000 students has doubled in recent weeks as cases have spiked.
It is unclear exactly how many students in New Jersey are currently quarantining because their classmates tested positive. The state numbers say about 3.8% of the state’s students were staying home from school due to COVID the week of Dec. 12. But not all schools are reporting the numbers and the statistics do not break down how many students were sick and how many were “close contacts” told to say home.