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New guidance allows schools with mask mandates to stop contact tracing

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On January 12, the Maine Department of Education (DOE) and the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced new changes to the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) used by schools to respond to COVID-19 cases. The new changes allow schools with universal masking policies in place to suspend contact tracing.

The change, which Maine CDC says was made following discussion with school superintendents, is the result of the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which may make contact tracing less effective. 

“The Maine CDC has determined that, because the Omicron variant is far more contagious than prior variants, has a shorter incubation period, and tends to spread in the early part of an infection, it is contributing to higher levels of community transmission, making community exposures more frequent and, consequently, reducing the effectiveness of contact tracing in schools,” the agency wrote in a press release announcing the latest changes to the SOP.

The change was also made in an effort to keep kids in schools.

“Keeping kids safely in the classroom is crucial to their education and minimizes disruption to the lives of their parents, who often have to stay home from work or are put in a child care crunch when their kids can’t be in school,” Gov. Janet Mills said via the press release. 

DOE Commission Pender Makin and CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah added that the new recommendations “allow teachers and school staff to focus their limited resources on educating students in the classroom as safely as possible.”

Setting masking requirements in schools is the responsibility of local school boards.

The Maine CDC did not return a request for comment about why only schools with universal mask policies in place can suspend contact tracing.

The previous revision to the SOP, made on December 29, 2021, updated quarantine requirements for asymptomatic individuals exposed to COVID-19 to reflect changes made by the U.S. CDC, and changed the state’s pooled testing program to exempt anyone participating in pooled testing from quarantine requirements. 

It also changed the definition of an “outbreak” in a school setting to more closely reflect the definition Maine CDC uses for other infectious diseases, and changed the definition of a “close contact” to remove outdoor contacts and exposures that occur on school buses.

About Katherine Revello

Katherine Revello is a reporter for The Maine Wire. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Maine. Her writing has appeared in Reason, The Washington Examiner, and various other publications. Got news tips? Contact Katherine at krevello@mainepolicy.org.

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