Most Maine school districts participating in the state’s pooled testing program for COVID-19 are still setting it up as the school year gets underway and cases are already forcing students into quarantine.

Of the 393 schools enrolled in the program statewide, only 66 had begun testing as of Friday while the others are in various stages of getting set up. The program, which is run in conjunction with testing vendor Concentric by Gingko Bioworks, is open to 710 public and private schools who have the option of enrolling.

Schools around the state returned to in-person learning before Labor Day, and the lag between the start of school and start of testing programs has raised concerns among some parents as more students end up quarantining because of virus exposures. Meanwhile, schools and the testing vendor say the delay was expected and they’re following the normal setup process.

“The schools have chosen to go through at different paces and what works for their school given all that’s going on with the start of school,” said Ben Rome, general manager of Northeast programs for Concentric. He said the pace of the rollout in Maine is similar to what Concentric has seen in other states.

“The one other tricky piece is we started the program off over the summer and I think as COVID rates really declined before the rise of (the delta variant), I think a lot of schools were anticipating and hoping that testing wouldn’t need to be a major factor,” Rome said. “I think between that and folks being burnt out from the prior year and the timing of delta, I think folks engaged with programs at different times and that’s why you’re seeing schools get started on different timelines.”

Anna Fincke, a Portland parent whose children attend Reiche Community School and King Middle School, thinks it is irresponsible for schools to have opened without testing in place, especially with the more transmissible delta variant.

“To keep our schools open and have our kids in school we have to keep COVID out,” Fincke said. “My view is we should have been testing on the first days of school. I think we’re flying blind right now. We have no idea how much COVID is in the schools and for every case detected and symptomatic, there are multiple asymptomatic cases that are not detected.”

LAUNCHED IN APRIL

The pooled testing program, which is being paid for with federal COVID relief funds and comes at no cost to the districts, was launched by the state in April to help schools with their virus response plans. Parents must opt-in to have their student participate.

Weekly pooled testing involves collecting swabs from small groups of students, usually around five to 25 students in a class cohort or homeroom, placing the swabs in a common test tube, mixing samples together in a “batch” or “pool” and then testing the pooled sample using a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test. If pool results come back positive, people in the pool receive follow-up rapid tests to find out who is infected.

Students or staff who test positive in the follow-up testing would be asked to isolate.

In schools without pooled testing under way, close contacts of someone who tests positive and who have not been vaccinated must stay home in quarantine for 10 days before returning to school. Hundreds of Maine students too young to be vaccinated already have been quarantined because of exposures in the first two weeks of school.

However, if a pooled testing program is in place, close contacts who are part of the testing program do not have to quarantine and may continue in-person learning. State officials have said the testing gives schools the ability to catch low levels of the virus in asymptomatic individuals and prevent significant spread.

Pooled tests provide logistical and financial advantages over having to administer individual tests, which can run upward of $100 or more each. Participation also ensures students have regular access to testing when it is in high demand in the community.

Some school districts that have yet to launch their pooled testing programs cited logistics such as applying for the program, training staff and collecting permission slips from parents as reasons why they haven’t started.

SURGE AFFECTED PLANNING

“If a district offered pooled testing during the summer, it might be possible to have it up and running sooner,” said Becky Foley, superintendent of Freeport-based Regional School Unit 5, which is planning to start testing in elementary schools next week. “I’m not sure what other districts are doing, but this is the soonest that we felt that we could roll it out effectively and smoothly. When we left in June, we had only three cases during the whole month of June. With so few cases, we did not plan to offer pooled testing. We changed our minds in August when we began to see the surge of cases in our state.”

RSU5 had more than 100 students in quarantine between three schools at the end of last week, and two schools in the district – Freeport High School and Durham Community School – are on the state’s list of schools with open outbreaks. The district plans to hold a question-and-answer session on pooled testing Tuesday, and Foley said it should help reduce quarantines, especially among younger, unvaccinated students.

Lewiston Public Schools, the state’s second largest district, also is aiming to start pooled testing next week at all schools. Setting up the program has been a multilayered process including coordinating with Concentric on staffing, creating testing schedules for each school and soliciting consent from parents, Superintendent Jake Langlais said. Before getting started, schools also must apply to the state online and obtain a federal waiver for administering laboratory tests.

“It’s a bit of a process,” Langlais said. “I don’t know if you could set it up before school. You don’t have the kids in front of you and parents aren’t connected to school-related communications yet. That’s part of our onboarding and set-up for the school year.”

In addition to the ability to exempt participating students from quarantine, Langlais said the testing program will provide the district with valuable data on school and community transmission. “It’s about quarantining or not quarantining, but it’s also about the live data we can get,” he said.

Some schools are staffing testing programs themselves, though Concentric can provide staffing support for districts that want it. At a school board meeting last week, Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana said the district is planning to start pooled testing Sept. 20 in kindergarten through sixth grades, but one challenge in the rollout is that they signed on with the understanding the vendor would provide additional staff to run the program but “that has not materialized to date.”

STAFFING AN ISSUE

“We are still working to identify people to help us do that work because it is a significant amount of additional record keeping, vials that need to be scanned and all that kind of work,” Botana said. “It needs to be delivered to classrooms, etcetera, and we have not received word those people have been hired, so that could potentially delay our start.”

Rome, asked about the Portland superintendent’s staffing concerns, said staffing testing programs can be a challenge because staff must undergo background checks to work in schools, which can sometimes lead to delays. “We’re working closely with our vendor that we use for staffing and with the district to make sure they can get up running safely and smoothly, and also as fast as possible,” Rome said.

In districts that have begun pooled testing, positive cases already have been detected. As of Friday, 934 pooled tests had been conducted statewide resulting in 36 positive pools, for a positivity rate of 3.8 percent. By comparison, the statewide positivity rate for PCR tests on Friday was 5.6 percent.

At Central Community Elementary School in Corinth, school nurse Natasha Mandigo said the school started pooled testing last week and turned up four positive pools. She said the testing will be a helpful COVID mitigation layer in addition to other strategies.

“The pool testing itself is very easy for staff because kids are able to do it themselves,” Mandigo said. “It’s a very easy swab. Kids unwrap the swab and put it into a tube. … With any new program, it does take a lot to get it up and going. There are always details to be worked out and ironed out, but overall it was not that bad.”

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