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Springdale School District participates in covid-19 quarantine pilot

by Mary Jordan | October 24, 2021 at 1:03 a.m.
A covid-19 test kit is seen Thursday Oct. 21, 2021 at the Don Tyson School of Innovation in Springdale. The tests yield results in fifteen minutes. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)

SPRINGDALE -- The School District on Friday concluded its participation in a two-week Test to Stay pilot program to decrease student and staff covid-19 quarantines.

"They just want to keep kids in school -- keep them learning," said Amanda Britt, the Arkansas Department of Education's liaison with the Arkansas Department of Health. "Last year was such a detrimental year on education."

Education Department guidelines for schools exempt people who are vaccinated or who had covid-19 infections within the past three months from which they recovered from having to quarantine unless they develop symptoms.

Students and staff also can avoid quarantine if both they and the infected person were wearing masks.

Under the Test to Stay program, students and staff who don't qualify for one of those exceptions and are identified as a probable close contact through a school exposure to covid-19 can still avoid having to quarantine if they wear a mask and submit to daily rapid coronavirus tests that come back negative after the exposure.

Springdale's participation in the pilot is a result of steps Superintendent Jared Cleveland has taken to work with the state to reduce school quarantines, said Damon Donnell, Springdale School District Student Services director.

Cleveland wrote a letter to Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Sept. 9 requesting changes to the state's covid-19 quarantine guidelines.

"It was the tipping point that allowed some freedom and choice with students, families and staff," Donnell said.

The district identified 6,332 probable close contacts who met covid-19 quarantine requirements because of school exposure during the 2020-21 school year, according to the letter. Of those, 104, or 1.6%, tested positive for covid-19.

"They were out of school for 14 days, and they missed all of that content," Donnell said. "The whole goal is that we aren't going to be sending kids home unnecessarily."

Cleveland is one of many educators who has said students generally learn best when they're attending school in-person as opposed to doing virtual school.

Only 12% of Arkansas' public schools improved their state accountability scores in the 2020-21 school year compared with the 2018-19 school year that preceded the covid-19 pandemic -- scores that depend largely on the results from the state-required ACT Aspire exams given in third through 10th grades last spring. The drop in scores followed a long layoff from in-person schooling in spring 2020 because of the pandemic; in addition, about 20% of Arkansas students opted for virtual learning during the 2020-21 school year.

Cleveland said the data emphasizes people are being over-quarantined during the pandemic, a problem Test to Stay is designed to solve, Britt said.

The Test to Stay pilot began Oct. 11 and was open for voluntary participation by students and staff at all of the district's 31 schools, Donnell said. Springdale is the largest district in the state with about 22,000 students and some 3,000 staff members.

Thirteen students were participating in Test to Stay as of Thursday, Donnell said. None had tested positive for covid-19.

"They're just attending school every day, which is the whole intent of the program," he said.

School nursing staff give free, state-provided rapid covid-19 tests to pilot participants each weekday they're at school throughout the quarantine period following a known school exposure, Donnell said. The tests take about 15 minutes to complete.

If negative, the student remains at school and continues daily temperature and symptom screenings, according to program protocols. If positive, the student isolates for 10 days from the test date or 10 days from the onset of symptoms, whichever is longer. No additional testing is required.

Program protocols initially prohibited Test to Stay participants from engaging in extracurricular activities, Britt said, but Hutchinson lifted the restriction Tuesday.

"If they're being tested every day, I think they've determined that it is safe enough," Britt said.

Hutchinson likewise announced Tuesday a reduction in the social distancing guidelines from 6 to 3 feet for schools.

"This is a baby step, but it's big for the district," said Debbie Jones, Bentonville School District superintendent, at a School Board meeting Tuesday. "Hopefully, we're going to see our quarantines dramatically decrease because kids need to be in school every day."

Although Bentonville, Cabot, Springdale and Russellville were all identified by Hutchinson on Oct. 6 as Test to Stay pilot districts, only Springdale and Russellville participated in the pilot, Britt said.

Tony Thurman, Cabot School District superintendent, didn't say why the district opted not to participate.

"We will reconsider that decision later this week," Thurman said Tuesday in an email.

Bentonville didn't receive the required covid-19 tests for the pilot until Oct. 13, preventing its participation, said Leslee Wright, district communications director.

The Russellville School Board unanimously approved the district's continued participation in the program Tuesday at its monthly board meeting.

All state districts will be able to voluntarily begin participating in Test to Stay beginning Monday, Britt said. About 39 districts have expressed interest in the program, including Rogers.

"We are in the initial application process at this point and still have logistics to work out here before we are prepared to start the program," said Charles Lee, an assistant superintendent in Rogers.

The Fayetteville School District is opting not to participate at this point, said Holly Johnson, director of communications. The district has very few students in quarantine and still has a mask policy in effect for all staff and students, she said.

Trisa Osborne, a registered nurse at Springdale Public Schools, shows a swab from of a covid-19 test Thursday Oct. 21, 2021 at the Don Tyson School of Innovation in Springdale. The tests yield results in fifteen minutes. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)
Trisa Osborne, a registered nurse at Springdale Public Schools, shows a swab from of a covid-19 test Thursday Oct. 21, 2021 at the Don Tyson School of Innovation in Springdale. The tests yield results in fifteen minutes. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)
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Covid-19 data

The most up-to-date information on Springdale School District covid-19 exposures is available at https://www.sdale.org/page/covid .

Source: Springdale School District

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