Keeping Kids on Campus: Rapid Antigen Testing in Victorian Schools

From Monday 15 November 2021, Victorian schools will be able to offer at-home rapid antigen tests to students who are primary close contacts of a positive case at school.

The rapid antigen tests will be offered to unvaccinated and partially vaccinated students, primarily those aged under 12. The aim will be to allow them to return to school after seven days of quarantine, rather than 14.

Fully vaccinated students who are primary close contacts of a positive case at school will not be offered at-home rapid antigen tests, as they are already only required to quarantine for seven days.

The move has been welcomed by educators and parents, who are concerned about the many months of interrupted learning in Victoria and the impact on young people’s wellbeing and learning.

To optimise students’ learning and limit the spread of COVID-19, schools will need to ensure they have a policy and procedure for rapid antigen testing. Requirements need to be clearly communicated to parents as well, to ensure testing and attendance is done properly. Schools will also need to consider the feasibility of dual-stream teaching – that is to students at school, and remotely to students in quarantine. If this is not feasible, then alternatives for students in quarantine need to be implemented and communicated.

How will testing work?

At present, unvaccinated and partially vaccinated students who are primary close contacts of a positive case at school are required to quarantine for 14 days before returning to school. From Monday 15 November, they will only need to quarantine for seven days before returning to school, provided they:

  • return a negative PCR test on day six of their quarantine; and
  • return a negative rapid antigen test at home on each school day before school on days eight to 14 of their quarantine.

They will also need to return a negative PCR test on day 13 of their quarantine in order to conclude their quarantine on day 14 and return to school on day 15.

PCR tests are free of charge and can be obtained from a COVID-19 testing site. Rapid antigen tests will also be provided free of charge and are able to return a test result within 15-30 minutes. Whereas PCR testing results must be provided directly to schools, rapid antigen testing results must be provided to schools via the Department of Education and Training’s web-based form.

How can students participate?

The Victorian Government has secured 200,000 rapid antigen tests for schools, and more are expected to arrive each week. Once received by schools, they will be distributed free of charge to unvaccinated and partially vaccinated students who choose to opt-in to undertake rapid antigen testing. Students who choose not to opt-in must quarantine for 14 days and return a negative PCR test on day 13 of their quarantine in order to return to school from day 15.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of rapid antigen testing?

Rapid antigen tests are relatively low cost and can determine whether an individual is likely or not to have COVID-19 within a short space of time. For these reasons, they will be suitable for daily use by students prior to their school day and able to maximise school attendance for students who return negative results. Ultimately, the provision of free rapid antigen testing is likely to:

  • minimise the spread of coronavirus throughout school communities;
  • allow unvaccinated and partially vaccinated students to spend more time in class and less time in quarantine;
  • promote students’ mental health and wellbeing;
  • enable schools to meet their duty of care to take reasonable measures to protect students from reasonably foreseeable risks of injury; and
  • provide peace of mind to school staff when teaching younger students who are not eligible to be vaccinated.

However, there are likely to be a number of challenges associated with rapid antigen testing. In particular:

  • there will need to be sufficient stock of rapid antigen tests to enable students to undertake daily tests between days eight and 14 of their quarantine period;
  • rapid antigen tests are not as accurate as PCR tests and are only able to determine whether an individual is likely or not likely to have COVID-19;
  • rapid antigen tests are susceptible to returning a false negative or false positive result;
  • rapid antigen tests may return invalid results, and students who return two successive invalid results will not be able to return to school until they return a negative PCR test;
  • there is a risk that rapid antigen tests will be improperly administered; and
  • there is a risk that rapid antigen testing results will be improperly reported by parents or guardians.

There are also industry calls for further reliance on rapid antigen testing, so that students can “test and stay” at school and avoid a quarantine period altogether. The seven day period is considered too long by many in circumstances where remote learning may not be offered to quarantining students, given the challenges of providing “dual-stream” learning. If implemented, there will be further requirements for schools in relation to the physical environment at school, perhaps similar to the VCAA guidelines in place at present for senior exams.

Rapid antigen testing pilot in schools

The Department of Education started piloting the use of rapid antigen tests in 20 schools affected by COVID-19 outbreaks from Monday 8 November. The pilot program aims to determine:

  • how students and their families will respond to rapid antigen testing in their homes; and
  • how schools will manage the receipt of testing results from students and their families.

The Department of Education is yet to publish the results of the pilot. The results will be used to inform the rollout of rapid antigen testing to all schools from Monday 15 November.

How we can help

We can help you to:

  • prepare and adopt policies and procedures for rapid antigen testing and COVID-19;
  • review your existing policies and procedures to ensure that they are in line with current public health advice;
  • effectively communicate your school’s policies and procedures on COVID-19 to your school community and respond to any queries or concerns raised;
  • manage student attendance and absence if students at your school become primary close contacts and are required to quarantine; and
  • minimise the impact on students’ learning when they are required to quarantine, including by implementing dual-stream teaching which meets your duty of care without unnecessarily burdening staff.

Please contact us for further assistance.