AUGUSTA — The Maine Department of Education announced Wednesday that schools with universal masking policies may elect to suspend their contact tracing programs.

Administrators from several schools with universal masking policies say they will stop contact tracing, but will continue notifying staff and students when their pooled COVID-19 test group has a positive.

Testing pools are often made up of students and staff who are in the same classroom.

The decision, which received support from the Maine School Board Association and the Maine School Superintendents Association, comes amid a crippling surge of the omicron variant, which set new records in Maine as recently as Wednesday.

“The rapid spread of the omicron variant has further burdened Maine’s schools during an already challenging school year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Education Commissioner Pender Makin and Maine Center for Disease Control Director Nirav D. Shah said in a DOE news release. “These recommendations allow teachers and school staff to focus their limited resources on educating students in the classroom as safely as possible. Getting vaccinated remains the most important step to protecting our school communities.”

The omicron variant is far more contagious and transmits earlier than previous variants, reducing the effectiveness of contact tracing.

“While the goal of contact tracing is to provide a timely notification to all individuals who may have been exposed to COVID-19, school superintendents have reported that conducting contact tracing in a timely and thorough manner is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for school personnel given the fast spread of the omicron variant,” according to the news release.

Contact tracing requires significant time and labor, something that short-staffed schools have little to spare. Notifying families that their children would need to quarantine for 10 days in the fall was exceptionally challenging for nurses and support staff, who often faced verbal abuse.

The state is encouraging schools to continue contact tracing if they have the ability to do so, however the new policy recognizes that some schools may benefit from putting their limited resources into other mitigation strategies, such as pooled testing programs.

Schools which do not have universal masking must continue to contact trace.

In a memo to the Lewiston school community Wednesday, Superintendent Jake Langlais shared that the district will no longer conduct contact tracing.

“The process of identifying who a close contact is and what happens next can get complex,” Langlais wrote in an email to the Sun Journal on Thursday.

Once someone tests positive, school staff had to determine who was in close contact with that person, leading to myriad questions for those identified, including whether they are vaccinated, whether they participate in pooled COVID-19 testing, and how long they must quarantine. Families, too, would need to be called.

“This is all after running the pool test, which takes a lot of time and effort, and doing the individual follow -up test if one of the pools is positive,” he said.

Lewiston schools have had as many as 70 positive pools in a single week, he wrote. With an average of 10 people in each pool, school staff had to administer 700 follow-up tests just to identify who the positive person was.

“I look forward to the days when I, nurses and other support staff can provide the services to kids that they need to provide and build relationships that last,” he said. “Staff are resilient, but they are tired after two years of this effort.”

Superintendent Cornelia Brown shared that the Auburn school district will also stop contact tracing. She said the district still plans to notifying staff and families when someone in their shared pooled testing group is found to be positive, however school officials are still deciding how notifications will be sent.

She anticipates sending an update to families next week.

“We think that some notification to families still remains important,” she said. “We are still monitoring all of our pools, we’re still doing pooled testing, and so we’re still thinking about how we want to provide notice to families for that, staff and families. We, too, like everybody else are stretched pretty thin in terms of notification procedures and how that’s going, and so I appreciate the department’s understanding of that for schools.”

Due to another recent policy change, school districts are no longer required to make individual phone calls notifying staff and parents why they or their child is identified as a close contact. Other recent changes include a shorter quarantine period, from 10 days to five, and a quarantine exemption for close contacts in schools with universal masking.

This means that students and staff in districts with universal masking do not need to quarantine unless they test positive or show symptoms of COVID-19.

RSU 16 will take a similar approach to the new policy changes.

Reducing the requirements for close contact notifications will be a huge relief for staff members responsible for conducting contact tracing, Superintendent Kenneth Healey said. He hopes the policy changes will allow district nursing staff to resume some of their normal, prepandemic job responsibilities.

“I can’t tell you the thousands of hours” that nurses, administrators and support staff have spent trying to contact parents about close contacts, Healey said, adding, “The people I’ve worked with have been extremely resilient.”

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