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RISD waiting on rapid COVID tests to start new program

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At the beginning of November, the New Mexico Public Education Department introduced a new program that aims to help keep children who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 in school rather than quarantined at home if they are exposed, but Roswell Independent School District is waiting to roll it out due to a shortage of tests.

All New Mexico public schools will participate in the Test to Stay program, according to PED guidelines introduced Nov. 2. RISD Superintendent Brian Luck said Friday the district’s paperwork has been approved for the program.

“We’re not ready to roll it out based on supply,” he said.

Under the program, any unvaccinated students or staff who are exposed to the virus in school can stay in their classes, ride school transportation and participate in extracurricular activities as long as they do not test positive for COVID-19. They will be tested on days one, three and five after exposure, with the day of exposure or when the school is notified of the exposure counted as day zero.

If an individual fails to take one of the required tests or shows symptoms of COVID-19, then they must stay home.

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Under previous guidelines, unvaccinated students and staff had to quarantine at home for 10 days.

In an update to the RISD Board of Education at Tuesday’s meeting, Luck emphasized students will not be tested without permission.

“We’re not going to just randomly do something at the school without parental permission. We’re not going to test a kid or do anything unless the parents have given us the green light,” he said.

Luck said the district will seek written permission and will possibly call parents or guardians as well.

The program also only covers students and staff who are exposed in school, not at home.

RISD will follow that guideline, even though Luck said he didn’t agree with it.

“I want all my kids to stay” in school, Luck said. “I might be looking to push to say really it’s irrelevant where they were exposed. They were exposed.”

The tests that will be used will be the rapid antigen tests, which search for antibodies from the SARS-CoV-2 virus and take about 10 to 15 minutes to give a result.

The tests are in short supply, however, due in part to demand from businesses with more than 100 employees preparing to meet federal mandates to test unvaccinated staff weekly.

Manufacturers are scaling up production, but that could take weeks to months, according to a report by Reuters.

Luck noted that if one student in a class tests positive for COVID-19 and four students sit around that student’s desk and are unvaccinated, then all four of those students must be tested for three days, a total of 12 tests for one classroom.

“We have had to order additional tests to get us ready to roll this out. At current, we do not have the stockpile ready to roll this out,” Luck said.

Luck said the district’s supplier could not provide the entire order but said it sent what it could.

He told the board, though, that he expected the district could have enough tests within a couple of weeks.

“We do feel pretty confident that that’s going to take place, and we’re trying to get that as quickly as possible, but currently we’re not quite there with the ability to give the test on a mass scale yet,” he said.

State health officials also said the test shortage is a concern, but other resources are available.

“The availability of rapid testing has been the subject of a lot of White House and governors’ meetings, and obviously, the program only works if we have the testing materials,” Dr. David Scrase, acting secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health, said in Wednesday’s weekly COVID-19 update.

Other testing methods could be used if the rapid tests are not available, such as the PCR tests done in a lab, he said.

“We can do an additional testing capacity, probably 8,000 tests a day in the state,” he said of the lab tests.

“It’s not as real-time but it is a little bit more accurate. Our test turnaround time is now down to 30 hours on average statewide, best it’s ever been, so if we need to use that as a backup, we can,” he said.

He and NMDOH Deputy Secretary Laura Parajón said the state is working with suppliers and schools to get more of the rapid antigen tests.

“I feel pretty confident that we’ll have enough supply chain,” Parajón said. “The other states that have been able to do this have not had a huge supply chain issue, so I think we will be OK.”

Another smaller concern for RISD is the district has not yet received the funding for the Test to Stay program, Luck said.

New Mexico received a $63 million grant from the CDC, part of the American Rescue Plan Act, to fund the program. Kurt Steinhaus, secretary designate of the New Mexico Public Education Department, said each school will receive $70,000 plus additional funds to be calculated per student for the program.

Luck said he did not yet know how much that will mean for RISD, but the district does have other funds it can use to purchase the tests.

City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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