On December 30, the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Maine Department of Education (DOE) announced revisions to the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for COVID-19 protocols in public schools.
On December 27, the U.S. CDC announced it was shortening to 5 days the recommended quarantine time for asymptomatic individuals exposed to COVID-19 and the isolation time for individuals who tested positive for COVID-19. Maine’s updated SOP brings the state in line with the new federal guidelines by shortening isolation and quarantine periods to 5 days for students and staff.
Individuals who are determined to be close contacts of someone who tests positive for COVID-19 must quarantine for 5 days and then wear a mask around others for 10 days. There are exemptions to this policy if a close contact is boosted, is a 16-year-old or 17-year-old and is fully vaccinated and eligible to receive a booster but has not yet done so, is not eligible to receive a booster but is fully vaccinated, has had the second dose of an mRNA vaccine within six month or a Johnson & Johnson vaccine within 2 months, is in pooled testing, or if the school has a mandatory masking policy.
Some close contacts exempted from school quarantine must still quarantine within the community.
The Maine CDC is also no longer considering exposures to COVID-19 that occur outside or on a school bus, where the federal government requires masks to be worn, to be a close contact. This includes outdoor exposures where close contact occurs, such as during sporting events.
The new SOP also changes the definition of a COVID-19 outbreak in a school setting. Beginning in January 2022, the Maine CDC will now only open a COVID-19 outbreak investigation into a school if more than 15% of its population is absent due to illness. This is the same definition the Maine CDC uses to define an outbreak for other communicable diseases.
When a school’s absentee rate meets the 15% threshold, Maine CDC will follow up with the school and inquire about the number of students and staff who have tested positive for COVID-19, the number of PCR and antigen tests conducted, the number of students and staff who are in quarantine, and the number of students and staff working remotely.
Schools will be required to report absentee rates daily. An outbreak will be closed after 14 consecutive days of absentee rates below 15%.
The final change to the SOP involves the test-to-stay program. The change is an effort to avoid quarantine and learning loss that results from missed school days.
On December 17, the U.S. CDC issued guidance authorizing schools to use test-to-stay programs, in coordination with other measures like masking and contact tracing, to minimize the impact of quarantine and school absence following COVID-19 exposure.
According to the SOP, test-to-stay is “a practice comprising contract tracing and serial testing to allow school-associated close contacts who are not fully vaccinated to continue in-person learning and avoid quarantine.”
Under previous Maine CDC guidelines, students and staff participating in pooled testing programs who were exposed to COVID-19 in a community setting were required to quarantine. Students and staff participating in pooled testing who were exposed to COVID-19 in school did not have to quarantine from school.
Under the new guidelines, students and staff participating in pooled testing will not have to quarantine regardless of where they were exposed to COVID-19.
A joint press release from the Maine CDC and the DOE touted Maine’s position as a leader in pooled testing.
“Pooled testing allows schools to perform wide-scale testing of school communities efficiently and to easily identify positive cases in individuals who may be asymptomatic, notify close contacts, and reduce the number of children and staff who need to quarantine,” the agencies said via press release.
According to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which reports on pooled testing in schools, 40% of Maine schools were participating in the pooled testing program as of December 17.