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DESE issues new guidance on contact tracing as part of COVID-19 response in public schools

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State Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) reports on safety, success of in-person learning

The Mass. Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) issued the following guidance information to all public schools this week:

Thank you for your ongoing efforts to keep schools open and safe for our students. You have been diligent about implementing key COVID-19 mitigation strategies, such as vaccinations, mask wearing, and testing, and we commend you for your hard work.

We have now had the opportunity to review available data about our testing program. We are writing to share timely information from those data and as a result offer an updated set of COVID testing options, including a weekly at-home test for participating staff and students, to optimize in-school learning.
Review of Statewide Testing Program Data in Schools
With over 2,000 schools in the state participating in some form of our current testing program this school year (i.e., symptomatic testing, routine pooled testing, and Test and Stay), we have robust data on the prevalence of COVID-19 in schools. Those data are overwhelmingly strong: Schools are safe environments for teaching and learning.
For example, the individual positivity rate in K-12 schools in the state’s pooled testing data reveal case rates significantly lower than the statewide positivity rate. Last week, despite elevated K-12 positivity, the estimated individual positivity rate was still only less than 1/5 of the statewide positivity rate (126.7%).

 On top of these much lower-than-average positivity rates, schools are one of the few types of settings in the state where individuals are tested on a regular basis.
Data from our Test and Stay program are equally strong about school safety. Students and staff individually identified as asymptomatic close contacts and repeatedly tested in school K-12 positivity source: CIC K-12 data from processing laboratories, published on a weekly basis on Thursdays through the Test and Stay program test negative over 90% of the time.

    As of January 9, 503,312 Test and Stay tests had been conducted; 496,440 of them were negative (98.6%).
It’s also helpful to look at nationwide data related to Test and Stay to examine the extent to which secondary transmission (i.e., transmission to close contacts) is occurring in schools. The evidence from California and Illinois cited by the CDC in their Test to Stay guidance noted secondary transmission rates of only 0.7-1.5%.  A pre-publication study of the first 13 weeks of the Test and Stay program across all participating Massachusetts schools found that the secondary transmission rate was 2.9% and that tertiary transmission was very low.
As demonstrated above, test positivity rates in Test and Stay indicate that
individuals identified as close contacts in school are very unlikely to contract or spread COVID-19. These data show that transmission from close contacts is a rare occurrence in schools and that, therefore, extensive contact tracing and associated Test and Stay procedures are not adding significant value as a mitigation strategy despite the demand they place on the time of school health staff and school staff at large.

   As a result, we are recommending that school health personnel increase their focus on identifying symptomatic individuals, rather than monitoring in-school close contacts who are unlikely to contract or spread the virus. The new set of testing options described below, which includes a weekly at-home test for participating staff and students, will uniquely support this shift in focus.
Other New England states, such as Connecticut and Vermont, have recently transitioned from individualized contact tracing to the use of at-home tests and focusing school health efforts on symptomatic testing.
New COVID Testing Options to Optimize In-Person Learning
To enable districts and schools to make the shift towards greater focus of school health personnel on identifying symptomatic individuals and other aspects of COVID-19 management, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), and the Department of Public Health (DPH) will now provide a new option within the statewide testing program to optimize in-person learning.

 Specifically, districts and schools participating in symptomatic and/or pooled testing may choose to continue those testing strategies and discontinue contact tracing and Test and Stay.  As an additional resource, districts and schools that elect to make this change will be provided with rapid antigen at-home tests for all participating staff and students that can be used on a weekly basis.

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