NEW JERSEY — The New Jersey Department of Education does not track which or how many school districts in the state have started using "test to stay," the recently-approved protocol that allows students exposed to coronavirus to remain in class, as long as they test negative in a rapid test given to them at the start of each school day.
However, several school districts in the state are either already using the system or intend to start very soon.
The Lakewood school district was one of the first to start using test to stay; they started doing it Jan. 7. Rumson-Fair Haven schools will start implementing test to stay Feb. 1. Hoboken, Long Valley and Rockaway school districts are considering it.
But overall, uptake of "test to stay" has been slow — in large part because New Jersey school districts do not have enough rapid antigen tests. In fact, Gov. Murphy said just this week that because there is a nationwide shortage of rapid tests, no school district in the state is required to do "test to stay."
"There is absolutely a rapid test shortage because of the paranoia of people in our society who are testing over and over again," said state Senator Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), who aggressively campaigned all last fall for Murphy to approve "test to stay." "We have people hysterically clearing shelves of tests just because they have the sniffles. And immunocompromised people — legitimately immunocompromised people — cannot find tests."
President Joe Biden is trying to fix that, as Biden promised Wednesday of this week his administration will provide 10 million free COVID-19 tests a month to U.S. schools to keep classes in person. These free rapid COVID tests are supposed to start arriving before the end of January.
In South Jersey, Millville and Washington Township school districts are starting in-school testing soon, according to Rick Pescatore, who owns a company that schools, companies and prisons hire to do contact tracing, and now in-school COVID testing.
Pescatore didn't want to say how much districts pay his company, but he said his company is brought in to do the testing because:
"School nurses are overwhelmed. And now they have to be battlefield epidemiologists. New Jersey has been way behind the eight ball on test to stay. They are reticent to do anything ahead of the CDC. In California lots of schools have been doing test to stay for a while now. It keeps kids in school."
How "test to stay" works
Currently, test to stay ensures that, instead of staying home for 14 days if they are exposed to someone who is COVID positive, the student reports directly to the school nurse's office every morning, instead of going to class. There, they are given a rapid antigen test, which gives results back in 15 minutes. The student is permitted to go to class if it's negative.
Test to stay applies to both vaccinated and unvaccinated students.
The student has to be tested every day for seven to fourteen days after the exposure. Lakewood said on their district website they test the student every other day.
This only applies if a student does not have any symptoms. If a student develops symptoms, they have to quarantine home from school for five days. Also, students participating in test to stay have to keep six-foot distances from others and must keep their masks on even outdoors, a time when most students can take them off.
This is according to these Dept. of Education guidelines that explain test to stay.
Those who support COVID testing in schools say it avoids students having to be kept home for two weeks for virtual learning — something that happened all fall and required a parent to either take off from work or work from home for those fourteen days.
"Students exposed to COVID faced quarantine period of as many as 14 days. They are unable to attend school or participate in sports or other activities," said O’Scanlon. “Quarantining dozens of students and keeping them out of the classroom has interfered with students and schools. Test-to-stay just makes sense. Students need it, schools need it and parents need it.”
New York City and New Jersey started allowing "test to stay" in schools once the Centers for Disease Control said they approved it in mid-December.
The state Dept. of Health said it backs testing in schools because it keeps students in school.
“We know that students benefit from in-person learning, said Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, "and safely continuing in-person instruction remains a priority."
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