It was never in the public health interest of students to close schools and move to virtual learning. As the pandemic enters its third year, schools must utilize every tool in their tool box to keep infections under control and kids in classrooms.
As in many other places, the biggest issue Tennessee schools are facing is staffing. Teachers and support staff are themselves getting sick and staying home. When schools don’t have enough bodies to operate schools safely, they have to shift to remote instruction or close altogether — the very worst case scenario.
Sustained in-classroom instruction can only be achieved by adopting a testing mindset. Test-to-Stay is a proactive public health practice aligned with CDC recommendations.
Students and staff who are exposed to COVID-19 are tested. Those who test negative stay in the classroom, while those who test positive go home until they are no longer positive. This more accurate and aggressive approach to testing identifies asymptomatic students and staff in time to remove them from the transmission pool.
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Here is how Test-to-Stay works
Test-to-Stay, paired with robust contact tracing and vaccinations, is the most effective way to reduce the spread and keep kids in school. Test-to-Stay will keep both students and staff in the classroom and alleviates community transmissions as well. The fewer in-person days missed, the better.
To implement Test-to-Stay, Tennessee needs an estimated 8 million tests a month. This is a lot. It will take a strong coordinated effort. We must prioritize testing in schools first and foremost, and we must also take regional needs into consideration.
We cannot neglect the needs of rural school districts. While metropolitan areas have reached their peak in omicron cases, rural parts of the state have not caught up to reach theirs.
While Test-to-Stay is resource-intensive, the funds available to Tennessee in the latest ESSER package can be utilized to acquire these tests and deploy private sector labor and expertise to keep kids and school staff healthy.
To accomplish this, state and local officials must seek out experienced private sector partners to bolster resources and execute Test-to-Stay and contact tracing initiatives, as well as advise on best practices as new variants emerge.
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It is inexcusable to be unprepared today
Doing nothing isn't an option. Continuing to send exposed students, teachers, and staff home because there are not enough tests or testing personnel will only lead to more, prolonged school shutdowns. More school shutdowns will continue to rob kids of vital in-person educational and social development they deserve.
COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. A new subvariant of omicron is already spreading globally, highlighting just how quickly this virus can evolve. Even as the current wave subsides, schools will get slammed by new waves in the future.
After three years, to be caught underprepared is simply inexcusable. Leaders must pursue proactive measures to move forward and not allow every new variant to further disrupt our kids’ education.
Kids are missing too much learning and working parents are struggling to balance childcare and job time. Our students, our parents, and our communities deserve proactive leadership that uses all tools available to them to keep schools open and kids in school.
Dr. Robert R. Redfield, Jr. is the senior medical adviser at AM LLC, a public health firm working with K-12 schools, and federal, state, and local health departments, and is the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018-2021).
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: COVID in Tennessee: Federal aid isn't enough to end school closures