UNION COUNTY — The days of mandatory quarantines for Oregon students with close COVID-19 contacts are ending.
The Oregon Department of Education recently implemented a “test-to-stay” program in which schools can provide COVID-19 tests to unvaccinated students who have been exposed to the virus and are asymptomatic. Students who test negative two times in a seven-day period will be allowed to remain in school rather than required to quarantine at home.
“We know the critical importance that school attendance has on student success,” said Oregon Department of Education’s director, Colt Gill, in a statement when the program was announced in November 2021. “Using test-to-stay as part of a layered set of protocols in schools will keep students and educators in classrooms, maximizing days spent in school learning, growing and thriving.”
La Grande School District Superintendent George Mendoza believes the program is a plus.
“It will provide more opportunities for students to be in school,” he said.
Students who have been exposed to COVID-19 in a school setting will take two COVID-19 tests: The first “soon after exposure” will usually occur at school, and the student will be tested again five to seven days later.
“Doing tests twice during that weeklong period should pick up the vast majority of students who are exposed who may come down with COVID-19,” said Oregon Health Authority state epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger, “and allow them to safety participate, not just in classroom settings, but in other structured educational settings while they’re wearing a mask, without missing out on that in-school, in-person experience that they’re having this year.”
InterMountain Education Service District Superintendent Mark Mulvihill is also a strong supporter of test-to-stay.
“Any kind of modification that keeps kids in school I support and am very appreciative of,” said Mulvihill, whose ESD serves about 20 school districts, including all six in Union County.
Mulvihill believes the test-to-stay program will benefit students in many ways.
“Less restrictions will help their psyche,” he said.
The superintendent added he thinks the program will boost the confidence of students since they will realize state officials are working to avoid shutting down schools.
“We have to learn to live with it,” Mulvihill said.
Union School District Superintendent Carter Wells, like many other educators, is supportive of test-to-stay because fewer students will miss classes and in-person instruction.
“We absolutely want kids in school,” he said.
Wells said that parents like it when their sons and daughters are at school, particularly when quarantined students would be home alone because both their parents have jobs.
“Parents do not want their children to be home alone,” he said.
The superintendent added when students are home with at least one of their parents, they do better on the school work they are assigned than if they are alone. Wells credits this to guidance parents provide students.
“When students are stuck they have someone who can help them,” Wells said.
Unfortunately, this is not possible for students whose parents are not at home, creating an unfair situation, Wells said.
Imbler School District Superintendent Doug Hislop has mixed feelings about the test-to-stay program. He said in one sense it is good because it will keep more students in school. However, he is worried about the possibility of a student receiving a false negative and staying in school, which would put their classmates at risk.
“It is a two-edged sword,” he said.
Hislop is glad test-to-stay also applies to staff, meaning that the Imbler School District will be less likely to have teachers sidelined in quarantine. He noted that earlier in the school year there was a point when five or six staff members, including teachers, were in quarantine because of close contacts. A shortage of substitutes forced Hislop and Imbler High School Principal Mike Mills to teach several classes.
While North Powder School District Superintendent Lance Dixon is a strong supporter of test-to-stay, he noted that the testing is only available for students who have been in close contact with a possible positive case of COVID-19 in a school setting. Students who had a close contact outside of school still must be quarantined for a number of days.
Dixon believes the reason for this may be that the state does not have enough COVID-19 test kits to test all students who have close contacts.
“I love the concept but I don’t like the limitations,” he said.