File Photo | Photo: Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

The CDC has issued new guidance nationwide recommending the “test to stay” strategy to keep children in the classroom instead of quarantining following a case study involving 90 schools in Lake County.

In August, the Lake County Health Department introduced a “test to stay” strategy, where unvaccinated students can stay in school after school-related COVID-19 exposure, instead of quarantining at home.

With the help of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 90 Lake County K-12 schools implemented the test to stay strategy during the study period of August 9 to October 29.

During that period, the schools reported 258 cases of COVID-19.

In order to be eligible to participate in the new strategy, the exposure must have occurred while both the COVID-19 positive person and the close contact were masked, the close contact had no symptoms, the close contact consistently practiced mask-wearing and social distancing and the close contact tested for COVID-19 on days 1, 3, 5 and 7 after exposure.

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The study showed that among the 258 cases reported and 1,035 students and staff members enrolled in the strategy, the number of close contacts who tested positive for COVID-19 within 14 days after exposure divided by the total number of close contacts was 16 out of 1,035, or 1.5%.

The CDC said all 16 secondary cases were in students and none of them appeared to transmit COVID-19 to other school-based contacts.

Assuming a maximum of 8 missed school days for every 10-day quarantine period, health officials say up to 8,152 in-person learning days were saved among close contacts.

The CDC says vaccination remains the leading public health recommendation for protection against COVID-19 for people ages 5 and older.

However, schools can consider test to stay as an option for non-vaccinated students to remain in the classroom as opposed to quarantining at home.

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In the fall, the Lake County Health Department encouraged eligible schools in the county to implement test to stay.

School eligibility includes the ability to report test results to the Illinois Department of Public Health and Lake County Health Department within 24 hours and school staff’s availability for interviews with health officials to provide details regarding school-related exposures.

Lake County Health Department Executive Director Mark Pfister said, “Children and their parents have been impacted by the different school learning models (remote, hybrid and in-person) and other interruptions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Vaccination remains the best way to protect against COVID-19 for those aged 5 years and older, but the Test to Stay strategy is an option for allowing close contacts to keep kids in the classroom. The Test to Stay strategy has allowed students and staff to benefit from in-person learning while being protected from COVID-19. This is exciting progress from where we were at the start of the pandemic,” Pfister added.

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U.S. Senator Susan Collins, who is a member of the Senate Health Committee, pushed health officials to consider the test to stay approach.

Although she welcomed the updated guidance from the CDC, she called it “long overdue.”

“Many parents, teachers, and pediatricians have spoken with me about the learning loss, emotional problems, and behavioral issues that have occurred among children due to their not being in school,” Collins said.

“Test-to-stay is a proven, successful strategy that can eliminate the need for highly disruptive quarantines of school children that have had a massive, detrimental impact on their studies and their health,” Collins added.