One week into the government’s new strategy for COVID-19 in local schools, education and health officials are racing to keep up with demand for ‘quick-response’ testing kits amid a cascade of cases among students and staff.
“We’re trying to be ahead of the curve, but I think everybody is just barely, barely, ahead of the curve right now,” Cayman International School Principal Jim Urquhart said.
The Cayman Islands government’s new policy allows people who are ‘primary contacts’ of a COVID-positive individual to continue going to school or work, as long as they test negative on lateral flow tests (LFTs) each day, for 10 consecutive days.
The 10-day ‘surveillance period’ replaces the previously mandatory ‘isolation period’ and negative PCR test result.
LFTs are not as accurate as PCR tests but results are obtained in a matter of minutes rather than hours or days.
Additionally, the government is creating a voluntary ‘screening programme’ where schools test students and staff two times per week in order to proactively detect COVID cases before they spread.
The Cayman Current reached out to all principals and school leaders in Cayman for whom we have contact information to request their assessment of the COVID situation in their school and how the new testing policy is working out.
(Editor’s Note: We did not receive any responses from government school principals, although we did receive an email from a Ministry of Education spokesperson requesting that future queries be directed to the Ministry rather than individual principals.)
Private school leaders expressed gratitude to the government for providing LFTs free-of-charge to schools and said the new testing policy has had an immediate positive impact on maintaining the in-person learning environments.
They said the supply of LFTs has been very tight. There have been just enough test kits to enable the 10-day surveillance programme, but not enough to start the screening programme. They were hopeful that fresh supplies of LFTs would be arriving on the island soon.
Cayman Prep and High School Director Debra McLaughlin said her school had seen several cases of COVID among students and family members, which previously meant the administration of PCR tests. While results for PCR tests originally took about a day to receive, after the current spike in community cases, the wait time stretched out considerably longer.
“The arrival of Lateral Flow Tests at the end of last week provided relief as we were immediately able to provide these directly to those classes that needed them and to maintain a quick turnaround time. This reduced disruption in learning considerably,” McLaughlin said via email Tuesday evening.
Island Montessori Director/Principal Clare Thorpe said she is confident Cayman will be able to keep schools open under the new policy as long as LFTs are available.
“The Department of Education and Kimberly Kirkconnell in particular has been fantastic. She is working hard to source the tests for us. Obviously the shortage of supplies has been an issue and this fault does not lie directly with them,” Thorpe said in an email Wednesday evening.
However, she questioned whether daily testing is the most suitable solution, particularly for the youngest children.
“[Daily testing] is mandated to allow them to come to school but not mandated for teachers to be vaccinated?” Thorpe said.
“Some children could be required to test for weeks if not months. I’m sure that many parents will not be testing properly in order to make it easier on their kids,” she said.
In a letter sent to parents on Thursday, St. Ignatius Catholic School Vice Principals Peter Embleton and James Hickey said the school had reported COVID cases in 12 classes, including among four members of staff.
However, they added that followup testing had not identified “too many further positive cases”.
“At the time of writing the Government has indicated that it will provide enough Testing Kits for children who require them, and for the bi-weekly testing. At the time of writing, we do not have all of the kits we require in our possession, and we have not yet been informed as to how they will be distributed,” they said.
Urquhart, the principal of CIS, said within a week his school had reported 14 positive cases, all in primary school or early years.
Speaking on an episode of EdBeat recorded Wednesday morning, Urquhart linked the absence of cases in middle and high school to the fact that children in Grade 8 and above are eligible to receive COVID vaccinations.
“The supply of tests has been tricky. I was just talking earlier today with a person involved in the lateral flow policy as well as the Ministry of Education, and I’m in awe of how much they’re working to keep slightly ahead of the curve,” Urquhart said.
He said, “Do we have enough lateral flow tests? Kind of … We’re managing the distribution so, in cases [where students need them for] 10 consecutive days, we’re not going, ‘Here’s your 10.’ We’re going, ‘OK, here’s five and then when we have more, we’ll distribute those.’”
Urquhart said they were anticipating possible future spikes a week or two after holidays and mass events such as Halloween and the upcoming Pirates Week Festival.
He said, “I think that the 10-day protocol, as robust as it is, may be hard to keep up with in the long run if we continue on this current exponential increase.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one school leader attributed the recent spike in COVID cases in schools to unvaccinated adults who ran midterm camps or who are teachers.
“If a teacher doesn’t want to be vaccinated that is their choice, but schools should not have to hire them!” they said.
Sprogs Garden Playschool Head of School Nicola Williams said as of Thursday evening her school had not had a positive COVID case among teachers or students since LFTs started being used.
“We certainly will be so thankful to make it through the week!!” she said in an email.