As of October 7, there have been just under 3,000 reported cases of COVID-19 in Maine schools within the last 30 days.
The Maine Department of Education’s (DOE) standard operating procedure for confirmed COVID-19 cases attempts to minimize the spread of the disease by quarantining infected students. Once a case has been confirmed by a positive test, designated school staff begin contract tracing of close contacts, defined as anyone “with exposure to the confirmed or probable case within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more.”
But, in a change from the procedure that was in place last year, not everyone deemed a close contact of a positive case needs to be quarantined. Unless they are symptomatic, fully vaccinated students do not need to quarantine. And students participating in the state’s pooled testing program are subject to reduced quarantine requirements if they were exposed to COVID-19 in school.
One of the differences between the policy the DOE is following this year to stop the spread of COVID-19 and the policy it was following last year is an emphasis on minimizing disruptions to in-person education.
The DOE considers school participation in pooled testing to be an important part of keeping children in the classroom.
Pooled testing involves collecting a nasal swab from a small group of students, usually within the same classroom or homeroom. The swabs are placed into a common test tube and the pooled sample is then subject to a PCR test.
If a test in the pool comes back positive, then all individuals in that pool are given a rapid antigen test. Any individual who tests positive is sent home to quarantine. Students who test negative, as well as their close contacts, do not have to quarantine and can continue attending school.
The pooled testing program is available to public and private K-12 schools. Students have to opt-in to participate in the program.
According to data last updated on October 4, 486 of 710 schools are enrolled in the pooled testing program. The program has a 42% participation rate, a number determined by the weekly participants as a share of the total population within schools that have testing pools.
Of the 1,051 pools tested over the course of the week prior to October 4, 18 returned positive. That’s a positivity rate of just under 2%.
The DOE reports that the population numbers used to determine the total population of schools participating in pooled testing use student enrollment data from the 2020-2021 school year.
Maine schools were required to report enrollment numbers for the current school year by October 1, but enrollment numbers for this school year have not yet been released by the DOE. The DOE reports it will use this year’s school enrollment numbers when they become available.
Maine’s pooled testing program has similarities to so-called “test-to-stay” programs, which allow close contacts of infected students to remain in the classroom if they are asymptomatic and test negative.
A study published in September by The Lancet suggested that school approaches to contract tracing that require close contacts of someone who tests positive for COVID-19 to quarantine are keeping uninfected students home. The study found that around 2% of close contacts in schools tested positive for COVID-19. The authors found case rates were not significantly higher at schools that conducted daily testing and allowed close contacts of positive cases to stay in school than rates in schools that required all close contacts of positive cases to quarantine.
The study suggested that daily antigen testing could safely allow students potentially exposed to COVID-19 to remain in school if they tested negative.
During a September 30 hearing on school reopenings, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) asked U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Dr. Miguel Cardona about the feasibility of test-to-stay programs.
Cardona acknowledged there is emerging data and stated that test-to-stay might be implemented in schools as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance changes. However, he also emphasized reliance on health experts.
“[W]e are going to rely on our health experts who have guided us to the point where we’re reopening schools across the country for our students,” Cardona said.