Newton schools make adjustments to COVID-19 testing program

Chad Frey
The Kansan

On a day when  members of the Safer Classrooms Workgroup, a workgroup created by Gov. Laura Kelly, met for the first time Newton USD 373 was making changes to testing and COVID-19 protocols. 

"We have made some changes to protocols again," said Fred Van Ranken, superintendent of schools. 

Those changes were for the Stay to Learn protocol — a protocol that allows parents and students to opt into daily COVID-19 testing if a student is identified as a close contact by the Harvey County Health Department. Identification as a close contact comes with quarantine recommendations. 

The Harvey County Health Department reported 125 cases  in the  week ending Monday, with eight new cases again on Tuesday morning.

"Each case averages 10 to 15 contacts to follow up on,' said Lynette Redington, director of the Harvey County Health Department. 

Under the Stay to Learn protocol, a student can be tested by school nursing staff at the beginning of the school day using a rapid test. If the test is negative, the student can remain at school, if they wear a mask and observe social distancing. 

On Monday there were 59 possible close contacts identified by the Health Department eligible for the Stay to Learn program. Of those, 31 elected for daily testing and to stay in school if possible. One week earlier, there were 94 possible contacts identified with 50 electing to be tested.

"We are keeping more kids in school and we have made adjustments to this," Van Ranken said. 

The adjustments made include allowing parents to designate an emergency contact who can assist with testing, The district is beginning an automated phone call system to notify parents and guardians after school each day if a student in their care is a close contact eligible for the program. Those calls will occur after notification of students added to the lists by the Health Department. 

That is being done in an effort to lighten the load on nursing staff, which Van Ranken said is "overwhelmed."

"They are not more overwhelmed than they were last year," Van Ranken said.  "We are trying to make adjustments so they can live a somewhat normal life and not be on call 24/7."

The district is also creating ways for students to continue to participate in activities and athletic practices. 

"We have a test to stay, play and participate. This allows students to also stay and take a limited role in extracurricular activities, depending on the activity," Van Ranken said.  "You have to consider every activity or sport or activity on their own."

For example, a tennis player could observe social distancing during a singles match — which could open up the door to participation following a negative test. Wrestling, however, is like a seven-minute hug and social distancing is impossible during competition. Tackling becomes football's downfall. In those activities, it would be possible for participants to participate in practice drills while socially distanced. 

"The same quarantine was there last year, and there was not this opportunity last year," said board member Luke Edwards.  "The only other thing we can do is redefine what a contact is, and that is not something that we can do here." 

"This is what we would like to do to give kids as normal of an experience as possible," Van Ranken added. 

The Safer Classrooms Workgroup announced Monday it will gather and share school testing metrics on a weekly basis to help the public understand the risk for COVID-19 in our school communities. 

“The information shared by this workgroup will make a huge difference for countless school kids, staff, and teachers,” Governor Laura Kelly said. “I look forward to watching the group’s progress, and learning more about can we be doing together – in a spirit of cooperation and concern – to keep our schools open and our students and teachers safe.”

Each week, the Workgroup will gather information from Kansas school districts to share with the press and public, including:

• The number of antigen tests administered

• The number of PCR tests administered

• The number of positive tests

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment will seek data from all 286 school districts in Kansas, and as many private schools as possible. Data completeness will depend on schools’ active participation.

The Safer Classrooms Workgroup composed of pediatricians, family physicians, school nurses, pharmacists, school psychologists, and other health professionals will meet weekly to  discuss how to help school districts, communities, and families keep their students safe from COVID-19 and variants.