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Students and staff from around the area might soon have the free opportunity to see if they have previously-been infected with COVID-19 yet did not know it.

Researchers from the UVM Larner College of Medicine have selected the Colchester School District (CSD) to be the studied population as they seek to determine what rate of pupils and staff members inside school buildings have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Dr. Benjamin Lee, an assistant professor of pediatrics and the principal investigator, and Dr. Sean Bullis, a second-year adult infectious disease fellow and the co-investigator on the study, presented the proposed research to the Colchester School Board at last week’s meeting to introduce the idea and ensure that the board would be in favor of the study being conducted using Colchester students and employees.

Dr. Lee said he would ideally like to include children and adults from schools across Chittenden County, but resources, including research personnel, led to the study needing to be more limited. He claimed that CSD, a district he classified as “medium sized” compared to others in the region, is the “right fit in many ways.”

“I think the size is attractive. It's manageable, and it would probably give us the power that we would need,” said Lee.

It was made clear that the district’s involvement would be as a conduit between the researchers and families, helping provide contact information to the UVM team and possibly allowing tests to be administered in the school buildings -- so long as it doesn’t take away from the limited in-person instruction that students are already receiving. School board and staff members will not be encouraging or discouraging participation in the study.

While introducing the proposal to the school board, Dr. Bullis said that they would be looking to test students who are going to district facilities for at least two days of in-person instruction per week. The research team is aiming to include 400 kids and staff members from each range of grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12.

Bullis added that they’re hoping to conduct the first batch of testing early in the fall, do a second batch eight weeks later, and then administer a third test towards the end of the school year to compare for changes and give the team a sense of undiagnosed infections that caused minimal symptoms and went unnoticed.

Information about the study will be provided to families in the district, including translated versions in languages spoken by families throughout the district, and an online consent form will then need to be completed for someone to register. Students in grades 6-12 will need to provide consent in addition to a parent or guardian.

Bullis said families will receive explained results, although it may take 2-3 weeks for those to be sent out. He also said families can withdraw from the study at any point, but any samples that had already been taken would have their results included in the research.

The UVM study is termed a “serosurvey,” meaning that it will use droplets of blood instead of the commonly-seen nasal swabbing used to diagnose people with COVID-19. The test will be similar to that which diabetes patients use to check their blood sugar levels and requires a finger prick.

After getting the go-ahead at the Sept. 1 meeting and having the school board agree to write a letter of approval for their institutional review board (IRB), the UVM researchers will next present their proposal to the IRB. That will be to make sure that their plans are safe and ethical and ultimately get the university’s final sign off on going forward with the research. While UVM’s IRB usually meets monthly to discuss projects, Bullis said it has “generally expedited” those which relate to coronavirus studies.


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