On June 9, the Maine Department of Education (DOE) updated its PreK-12 and Adult Education Public Guidance. Though Gov. Janet Mills recently announced Maine’s state of civil emergency will expire on June 30, DOE’s requirements continue to remain in effect until July 1.
The changes announced on June 9 come after earlier guidance exempting schools participating in the pooled COVID-19 testing program from physical distancing requirements.
The pooled testing program collects swabs from a small group of students who are in the same cohort or homeroom and mixes those swabs in a common “pool” in a test tube. That pool is then sampled with a PCR test. If the results are positive, the individuals in the pool are individually tested. Those who test positive again are sent home to quarantine. According to the Maine DOE, this method reduces the number of students who are required to quarantine. Consent is required for student participation in the program.
Though the Maine CDC continues to recommend six feet of distance between students who are unmasked and eating or drinking, schools with at least 30% of staff and students participating in the pooled testing program are not required to enforce this. Schools not participating in the program are required to maintain at least three feet of physical space between students at all times when they are indoors and must have at least six-feet of physical distance between students when they are unmasked during meals.
Masks are not required to be worn outside and the guidance recommends classes and other activities be outside whenever possible.
The guidance continues to require that masks be worn inside at all times, except during eating and structured mask breaks. Mask breaks are limited to 5 minutes at a time, and may not exceed 15 minutes a day. In order to remove masks, students are required to be stationary and seated, at least six-feet physically distanced from each other, facing in the same direction, and are required not to engage in conversation. The guidance recommends these breaks take place during a silent reading period or when a writing prompt is assigned.
The updated guidance also eliminates the need of individuals who have been exposed to COVID-19 and are asymptomatic to quarantine as “close contacts” if their school participates in the pooled testing program.
In its announcement, the Maine CDC stated the changes were aimed at protecting public health for summer school and other summer programs. Recommendations for the start of school next fall were likely to be different. According to the updated guidance, the Maine CDC intended to “lift all physical distancing requirements for PreK-12 schools and adult education programs, effective for the start of the 2021 school year.”
Even if this were not the Maine CDC’s intention, the end of the state of emergency means the governor will not have power to enforce physical distancing requirements or force students or administrators to wear face coverings while at school.
Following the announcement that the state of civil emergency will expire on June 30, the DOE issued a priority notice stating the Maine CDC will continue to “strongly recommend” that unvaccinated people, including children under the age of 12, wear a face covering indoors. The DOE’s standard operating procedure for responding to a positive COVID-19 case will continue to remain in effect. Vaccinated people deemed a close contact of a positive case who are asymptomatic will not be required to quarantine.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services will also continue to recommend schools participate in its pooled testing program as “individuals who participate in pooled testing are also exempt from quarantining as a close contact, thereby reducing education disruptions and exclusion from extracurricular activities.”