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RI EDUCATION

Westerly school district launches R.I.’s first COVID test-to-stay program

The program will allow unvaccinated students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade to stay in school after an in-school COVID-19 exposure if they test negative for the virus

Governor Dan McKee speaks during a press conference at vaccination site at Bucklin Park in Providence on Aug. 5, 2021.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Westerly on Wednesday launched Rhode Island’s first COVID test-to-stay pilot program, which will allow unvaccinated students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade to stay in school after an in-school COVID-19 exposure if they test negative for the virus.

The pilot program is the first of its kind in Rhode Island. State officials say if it works, it could be used in other parts of the state, and would help limit disruptions to the lives of students and their families.

“There is no substitute for in-person learning,” state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said at a news conference announcing the pilot. The news conference was held at the state Department of Education offices in Providence and streamed live online.

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Under the program, which officially started Wednesday in Westerly, students who are exposed to COVID-19 in the classroom but remain asymptomatic can opt to take a rapid antigen test every day for seven days rather than quarantine at home. School districts in other states, including Massachusetts, have been using the test-to-stay approach.

State education officials said the daily tests have to be done at the school. Families will have to opt in to participate in the program. Students cannot attend non-school-related activities and have to follow quarantine guidelines outside of school, Infante-Green said.

In determining whether the program will expand to other towns, they’ll look at things like the total number of days it will save and whether it works and is safe.

“It is clear that the pandemic has taken a social and emotional toll on our students and our families,” Governor Dan McKee said. “The best place for our kids to learn, play and grow is in the classroom.”

Thousands of students around the state have had to quarantine at home and miss important learning and socialization opportunities, even as “very, very few” eventually tested positive for COVID-19, said Westerly Public Schools Superintendent Mark Garceau.

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“We were sending them home to monitor for symptoms or positive tests that frankly never came,” Garceau said.

He added: “Kids want and need to be in school.”

The test-to-stay program doesn’t apply to vaccinated students or staff because they’re exempt from quarantine requirements, state and local officials said.

Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the director of the state Department of Health, said at the news conference that test-to-stay will be one layer of protection, which also includes distancing, masks and, importantly, vaccination. Kids 12 and up are now eligible for vaccination. Following federal guidelines, kids 5 to 11 are expected to be eligible next.

“We know that vaccines work,” Alexander-Scott said. “The data are clear.”

Also Wednesday, McKee was asked to address what the state would do for unvaccinated workers at its own health care facilities — the Veterans Home nursing facility in Bristol and Eleanor Slater Hospital — after Friday. Workers at state-licensed facilities were supposed to be vaccinated by Oct. 1, but the state Department of Health said unvaccinated workers could continue to work beyond that deadline if their absence would pose a risk to patient care.

McKee said the state would follow the Health Department guidelines, including possibly using the Naitonal Guard if necessary. Eleanor Slater still had 69 unvaccinated workers out of a workforce of 856 when including contractors as of last week, according to the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals.

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Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.