Editor's note: The Palladium-Times received a call from public officials that said when the information was given to our staff late last week, it was still accurate. But New York state released new guidance to schools over the holiday weekend that made this story out-dated by the time it was published in the Tuesday edition of The Palladium-Times. New guidance will be released soon, according to officials, and The Palladium-Times will be following up with a new article.
OSWEGO — County health officials are ruling out implementing a test-to-stay in school program that would allow students exposed to COVID-19 to avoid long quarantine periods after if they test negative for COVID-19.
Test-to-stay programs allow students who were in close contact with someone who tested positive to take a rapid COVID-19 test over several days at school before entering the classroom, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If they test negative, they can stay at school and do not need to quarantine.
After a few states, such as California and Illinois, have implemented similar programs, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Dec. 20 the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) is backing counties that want to pursue test-to-stay programs at school districts. Prior to her announcement at the Dec. 20 press event, the NYSDOH issued guidance in October that allowed for implementation of test-to-stay programs, but suggested the state wouldn’t directly recommend them.
“And here’s what we want to have happen,” Hochul said. “Children are in a classroom, and someone tests positive. Ordinarily, they would have been sent home for a long period of time. And then even if someone — they go back — someone tests positive again, the next week they’re sent home again. This is so disruptive to their education, as well as the parents, who’ve been desperately trying to get back to a normal life, get back to their jobs.”
Hochul also said the state has bought and will distribute 2 million rapid tests to school districts in January.
Oswego County Health Department Public Health Director Jiancheng Huang said in an interview with The Palladium-Times on Thursday that the county does not have the testing capacity to provide such a program to all nine school districts.
“We cannot provide this large-scale testing in our county,” he said.
A program of this scale would require a high degree of coordination among several school districts and other public partners, Huang said.
“We need schools on the same page and we need the whole county on the same page,” he said. “This is why these programs are so challenging.”
Huang noted the county would continue to monitor state guidance on the matter.
“Things keep changing and we will continue to assess the situation,” Huang said. “I encourage residents to go get vaccinated, seek booster shots, and wear a facemask while at indoor public spaces.”
Oswego County is currently in the midst of a significant spike in positive COVID-19 cases. Along with all of New York, the county is currently deemed as having “high” community transmission levels, according to CDC criteria. “High” transmission areas are those with 100 or more cases per 100,000 people or a positivity rate of 10% or higher every seven days. The county reported 1,193 active COVID-19 cases as of Dec. 20.
“COVID-19 activity remains high in Oswego County as we remain in a post-Thanksgiving surge of positive cases,” Huang said. “Omicron, the new COVID-19 variant, is surging in nearby Tompkins County, and people will gather together more often for the holidays. All of this could dangerously strain local health care systems and first response capacities again.”
The surge in cases, along with staffing shortages, forced the Oswego City School District (OCSD) to pivot toward remote instruction on Dec. 17. OCSD students and staff are set to make a return to an in-person schedule Jan. 3, Superintendent Mathis Calvin III said at the Dec. 21 board of education meeting.
Regarding test-to-stay programs, Calvin said the district is awaiting guidance from county health authorities.
"The district remains open to this and any other option that will result in keeping students in school for in-person learning,” he told The Palladium-Times Thursday. “Once we receive information from local health officials, we will evaluate it and work collaboratively to implement any new changes to our practices.”
At the Dec. 21 board meeting, Calvin also announced the district’s surveillance testing clinic will open Jan. 4. Surveillance testing looks for individual infections in a group even if there is no reason to suspect those individuals are infected, while diagnostic testing serves to identify current infection at the individual level and is performed when a person has signs or symptoms of infection.