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Commissioner Makin briefs education committee on school reopenings, virus outbreaks

During a September 15 meeting of the legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs, Department of Education (DOE) Commissioner Pender Makin discussed the steps her department is taking to create a safe return to schools for the 2021-2022 year.

Makin discussed the number of outbreaks schools are currently facing, 160 reported cases in schools as of September 14, which she said are the result of a “perfect storm” of the opening days of the school year colliding with a “precipitous surge” in the Delta variant of COVID-19.

Makin attributed the number of cases schools are currently experiencing to several factors. The push for in-person learning, Makin explained, means there are twice the number of students in school every day that there were last year. Makin also noted that routine pooled testing means schools are catching and identifying more cases because they are testing more.

Makin further stated that school children came into the classroom this year “pre-loaded with COVID-19.” According to Makin, there is no evidence to show that the current number of reported cases is indicative of in-school spread. The number of cases appears to reflect spread in the communities from which children are coming. Makin noted schools have not been back in session long enough for there to be evidence of in-school transmission.

The DOE is posting confirmed outbreaks weekly. The Department of Health and Human Services has also collected the school district vaccination rates for staff and will soon report them publicly. It has already reported the vaccination rates of students aged 12 through 18.

The DHHS updates this information bi-weekly.

Makin stated many of Maine’s school districts have staff vaccination rates of “well over 90%.”

As part of the department’s presentation to the education committee, Makin and other DOE staffers also discussed the safety guidelines which schools are required to follow. 

Makin explained that last year Maine’s DOE developed its own framework for school safety because the federal government didn’t provide any guidance. However, because the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have since developed guidelines, the Maine DOE has adopted these to try and prevent confusion. 

The guidance for this school year states that, as well as requiring indoor face coverings for everyone regardless of vaccination status, schools should have developed hand hygiene protocols, enhanced cleaning procedures, and have taken steps to ensure ventilation is adequate. 

Like last year, schools are still recommended to maximize physical distancing whenever possible. However, unlike last year when many schools were operating remotely, this year’s guidelines recommend physical distancing to the extent possible without excluding anyone from in-person learning. The guidelines also recommend that schools group students into small cohorts and minimize intermingling. 

Schools should also perform daily symptom screening and have students and staff stay home when they are feeling sick.

The Maine CDC’s Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), which describes the required measures schools are required to take to protect community health when they report a positive case, also contains some differences from the policy that existed last year. 

According to DOE Deputy Commissioner Dan Chuhta, who presented the information at the education committee meeting, the most significant change relates to quarantine exemptions for those who have been in close contact with an individual who has COVID-19.

Close contact continues to be defined as anyone who was within six feet of an infected individual for more than 15 minutes, or who has had direct physical contact with that person. Last year, anyone with close contact to an infected person was required to quarantine. This often meant quarantining an entire classroom, team or school bus. This year, in an effort to minimize disruptions to in-class learning, some students are exempt from quarantine. All close contacts, however, are still required to be identified and notified.

The chart below outlines the quarantine exemptions for students:

According to Makin, schools can minimize quarantine disruptions by emphasizing vaccination, requiring universal masking regardless of vaccination status when staff and students are indoors, and requiring that 6 feet or more of distance be maintained between students whenever possible.

Makin also said that reducing transmission in the community, which she stated is everyone’s collective responsibility, can also help reduce transmission in schools.

Makin further encouraged schools to participate in weekly pooled testing programs. The DOE has partnered with BinaxNOW to administer its pooled testing program.

Makin stated that schools are being prioritized to receive testing kits and testing continues to increase across the state.

She reported that as of September 10, 393 schools had signed up for pooled testing and 66 were actively participating in the program. Of the 934 tests run over 36 different pools, Makin reported a 3.8% positivity rating, which she said is good when compared to the rest of the community.