The newest COVID-19 toolkit released by the New Mexico Public Education Department is designed to keep students in class, but a lack of supplies and training from the state has put local efforts on hold.

On Nov. 2, PED released its newest toolkit, dubbed “test to stay,” which mandates public school districts offer the choice of rapid testing to students who have had close contact with a COVID-19 person at school as well as the traditional home quarantine.

The idea is a possibly-exposed student will receive a rapid test every other day for a week in the morning before being around others and, if it’s negative, carries on with their daily activities at school. If the test is positive, the student goes home to quarantine.

So far though, the state has not provided test kits or guidance on how to perform the tests in what is deemed an equitable manner.

Belen Consolidated Schools Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez said while the supply pipeline is not in place, districts are still expected to offer parents a choice between traditional quarantine or “test to stay” in the event of a close contact.

After many meetings and much discussion, Sanchez said he went to the state with an idea from a parent.

“What if we used home kits at school sites?” was the question the superintendent put to PED. The idea was approved, so he and Deborah Baca, the district’s health services coordinator, went to the Walgreens in Belen.

“The manager there, Clarissa, was very gracious and sold us what we needed,” Sanchez said. “We are going to be piloting this at Belen High School. The reporting that goes along with this is extensive, so we’re going to work out the kinks there.”

The state’s contract provider for testing — Premier Medical Group — will be able to provide training and assistance by mid December, Sanchez said, so in the meantime, the district will begin its pilot program at BHS.

“The big reason we started at the high school is the number of activities that we have there. The nursing team at the high school is kicking butt,” he said. “It does make you wonder why this was released without everything being in place so we could effectively administer it.”

The “test to stay” process was initially supposed to be rolled out in mid October, Sanchez said, and be optional for districts. However, when it was released earlier this month, it became mandatory for districts to offer parents a choice between traditional quarantine and the rapid testing model.

The new toolkit requires the “test to stay” process be fully implemented by January.

“During one of the meetings, we were told if we did not have it in place by December 1, we would get a warning and possibly a visit from the state,” Sanchez said. “If it’s not in place when we come back in January, we were told there’s the possibility of a fine. They didn’t tell us how much.”

Los Lunas Schools Superintendent Arsenio Romero said with one positive case possibly sending 15 to 20 students home to quarantine, depending on the configuration of a given classroom, the “test to stay” option will hopefully allow more students to stay in class.

“The intent is good. They want it fully implemented by January, and a lot of work will go into making sure that happens,” Romero said. “There are different protocols the district can take advantage of, such as having professionals come in to do the testing or having our own personnel certified to give the rapid tests. We are going to look at all the options.”

Romero said the district would probably create a position to support testing protocols and work with all school sites.

“We are putting a lot of thought into the equity part so that no matter where you live in our community, you have a chance to take advantage of this option,” he said. “Some communities it will be harder to bring to than others.”

The PED toolkit requires close contacts — whether vaccinated or unvaccinated — who don’t have symptoms to take a rapid test on the day after they are notified they were exposed, then on the third and fifth day.

BCS added one more day and will test on day seven. At any time, if a student tests positive, they will be sent home. If they have another close contact, the testing cycle resets and they begin at day one again.

“You could be positive on day three, which means you then have enough of a viral load to be contagious and stay home,” Romero said. “Once you are past day five or six and are testing negative, you probably aren’t going to have enough of a viral load to be contagious.”

During a presentation of the new toolkit to the Belen Board of Education, Baca said students who have a close-contact exposure at school will be allowed to continue participating in school activities, such as sports.

“Remember this is only if the close contact was at school. At-home exposure still requires quarantine at home,” Baca said.

Sanchez noted if a student is doing the “test to stay” process, they are still considered to be in isolation.

“That means you’re not hanging out at the park, going to McDonald’s. You are allowed to ride the bus or get to school in your normal way; you can participate in classes and activities, but otherwise you are at home,” the superintendent said.

NMPED COVID-19 Toolkit (Nov. 2)

NMPED COVID-19 Toolkit (Nov. 2)

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.