How more rapid tests could help reduce school quarantines Test-to-stay policies could help keep students in in-person school. But amid a national shortage, rapid tests can be hard to come by, and the practice isn't common.

Kids are losing school days to quarantines. Here's a way to keep them in classrooms

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1044015104/1045380737" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Since in-person schools started back again this fall, tens of thousands of students have been sent home to quarantine because of COVID exposure. This leaves some students at risk of falling behind. NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports that more rapid testing could help keep kids in classrooms safe.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Ten-year-old Brayan was recently sent home from school to quarantine for the fifth time this year.

JOSE: Yesterday, he was crying. He wants to - he said he wants to go to school. He wants to be smart. He wants to, you know, learn, but he can't.

KAMENETZ: We're not using his last name to protect Brayan's privacy. His father, Jose, says his son has never tested positive for COVID but keeps getting exposed at school from classmates at his worktable or at recess. The family lives in Nashville and runs a Mexican restaurant. Jose says that Brayan is falling way behind. When he's out on quarantine, he gets homework on the computer, he says, but no live teaching.

JOSE: They're sending him homework over the computer, but nobody explains to him how he needs to do it or what he needs to do with that.

KAMENETZ: Brayan's school tells them he's in danger of failing two courses.

When a student tests positive for COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend sending that student and all close contacts who are unvaccinated home from school for 14 days. Not every district is following these rules, but in communities with lots of cases, even shorter quarantines can quickly add up.

BREE DUSSEAULT: A student gets exposed more than once - these things start to stack up and can actually lead to pretty significant absenteeism.

KAMENETZ: Bree Dusseault has been tracking school reopening plans for the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

DUSSEAULT: One or two quarantines, for example, that suddenly puts students into what used to be considered a crisis.

KAMENETZ: She says chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 18 to 20 days in an entire school year. It was a big risk factor before the pandemic for failing classes and even dropping out. And now, after 18 months of disrupted learning, unexpected absences could be even worse.

DUSSEAULT: It makes it really, really hard for teachers and staff to do the learning - apply the learning strategies that we know are necessary to help catch kids up from the last two school years of losses.

KAMENETZ: But there is an alternative to all these disruptions that could reduce quarantines without necessarily increasing COVID spread. The state of Massachusetts has a program called Test and Stay. Students identified as close contacts come to school and take a rapid test every day for five school days. They can stay at school as long as they remain negative. There's research to back this approach up. A U.K. study conducted this past spring found that daily testing for seven days was just as effective as a 10-day quarantine in preventing COVID-19 spread in high schools. Access to rapid tests, and in particular the staff to administer them, is not equal everywhere in the country.

MAGGIE GRAUL: It's an incredibly difficult lift because you're testing, you know, a large number of students, and you're having to coordinate daily testing.

KAMENETZ: Maggie Graul oversees K-12 COVID-19 testing for the Utah Department of Health.

GRAUL: It's hard to get these screening programs in place. It's hard to, you know, get the personnel to support it, to get the testing supplies to support it.

KAMENETZ: But, if adopted widely, Test and Stay could prevent millions of cumulative missed school days by the end of the year. As for Brayan, his father, Jose, is looking for a tutor.

JOSE: I'll be honest with you - I can't help him.

KAMENETZ: He says he wishes he could help his son catch up, but he only had six years of schooling himself in Mexico.

Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAGGIE ROGERS SONG, "ALASKA (SOFI TUKKER REMIX)")

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.