FARMINGTON — Regional School Unit 9 (RSU 9) announced Wednesday, Jan. 12, that the district is temporarily suspending its contact tracing procedures due to the COVID-19 omicron variant’s “high transmissibility.”

The district’s suspension complies with updated guidance from the Maine Center for Disease Control in its “Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for responding to COVID-19 in schools.”

The MCDC/DOE is allowing schools “with universal masking policies to suspend contact tracing if they are not able to conduct it effectively, in order to rededicate limited and tired staff to focus on other COVID-19 mitigation strategies, like detecting and preventing infected people from being in schools via pooled testing, to help keep kids in the classroom,” according to a media release from the DOE.

At RSU 9, which enforces a universal-masking mandate, a revised version of the district’s policy states that communications about school exposures from Jan. 13 and on will not identify specific close contacts. However, the revised RSU 9 SOP will notify staff and families whose children “are in the same classes” as an individual with a positive COVID-19 test through text and email.

Following an in-class exposure, the district will also offer all students and staff a rapid test five days after the exposure date, according to the SOP.

The updated procedures raise questions about how RSU 9 will guide families on responding to exposures and quarantining from the community.

The most-recent policy change, approved at the RSU 9 Board of Director’s Jan. 4 meeting, guided close contacts they identified who were not vaccinated to quarantine from the community (not school) for five days. In addition, all close contacts — whether or not exempt from quarantining — were required to mask around others for 10 days following any quarantine period.

Director of Curriculum Laura Columbia, who oversees the district’s COVID policies and procedures, clarified the procedure change in a phone interview Friday, Jan. 14.

Columbia explained that the new decision to inform all parents of a student in a classroom with a positive COVID case (rather than just close contacts) is to avoid giving families or staff a false sense of security.

“When I use to be able to tell you that you were close contact, I had a [specific] level of certainty that you were exposed on this date with this person with no other exposures. But because we’re getting so many cases, I don’t feel like I can confidently tell you that,” Columbia said.

The DOE echoed concerns that omicron has made it “increasingly difficult … if not impossible” to “conduct contact tracing in a timely and thorough manner” and with certainty.

Now, Columbia said, by informing all individuals in the same classroom, “[families, staff] can decide what they would like to do. And then we offer testing to students and staff who would like to on day five.”

Because of this loss of certainty and overexertion of contact tracing, Columbia said the district has “decided to use the highest and most effective mitigating strategies that have been recommended to us” – these are rapid testing and consulting with students, staff and families to identify and monitor symptomatic individuals.

In addition, if a student shows or develops symptoms while in school, the district can administer a rapid test during the school day. Columbia said the district is also working to soon start a rapid-testing drive-through clinic, which will also be easier to accomplish without the time-consuming task of contact tracing.

This change takes away any explicit guidance on whether or not to quarantine. However, Columbia said that everyone should ultimately be cautious of going out in the Franklin County community right now “because community spread is so high.”

“The guidance we’ve given to staff is, ‘if you’re concerned, you have to act like everyone is possibly carrying [the virus, omicron variant], everyone is possibly transmitting it.'”

This policy change does beg the question of how the suspension might impact the rate of in-school transmissions. However, Columbia said that the district’s nurses and administration are finding the majority of students and staff who have tested positive have contracted the virus while in the community.

She said she’s been hearing from students and families who have tested positive that they gathered with other students, friends “outside of school.”

This community spread, Columbia said, makes a lot of the situation, positive cases in the district “out of our hands.”

“It’s been very hard,” she added.

Columbia’s ultimate “recommendation [to students, families and staff] would be to continue to practice the protocols we’re doing in schools – wearing masks, being cognizant of distance, don’t go out if you have symptoms.”

In an email, Superintendent Chris Elkington added that the district “would appreciate it if people could return to reducing contacts and wearing masks over the next several weeks as the spread is moving us closer to having to possibly do some remote learning, not as a district but possibly related to an academic team, a grade level or a school.”

The DOE explained that the variant has reduced the effectiveness of contact tracing because it is “is far more contagious than prior variants, has a shorter incubation period, and tends to spread in the early part of an infection.” This, the release states, “is contributing to higher levels of community transmission, making community exposures more frequent.”

At a media briefing Wednesday, Jan. 12, MCDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said that “trying to catch omicron by contact tracing is like trying to catch a bullet train on a bicycle,” according to Sun Journal’s Emily Bader.

Bader reports that “across the state, about 70% of individuals hospitalized with COVID are not fully vaccinated” which is placing increasing, “continued stress” on Maine’s health care systems, according to Shah.

In Franklin County, which RSU 9 serves, transmission rates peaked at 44 new cases on Dec. 14, according to the New York Times. Steve Collins reports that in mid-December, “Franklin County [was] coping with the fourth highest rate of new infections in the country.”

The Times reports that “at least 1 in 8 residents have been infected, a total of 3,963 reported cases” in Franklin County. Though new cases peaked and then began to decline in late December, that rate is climbing back up with 30 new cases reported on Thursday, Jan. 13.

The Times also explained that because “the test positivity rate in Franklin County is very high, [this is] suggesting that cases are being significantly undercounted.”

As it stands, MCDC data reports that only 60.12% of Franklin County residents have received the final dose of the COVID-19, which makes the county the second-least vaccinated in Maine. Around 32% of county residents have received the booster shot.

Additionally, just 50-54% of students ages 5-18 at RSU 9 are vaccinated against COVID-19, according to MCDC data last reported Tuesday, Jan. 11.

During the week ending Friday, Jan. 14, 98 students and staff reported to the district they had tested positive for COVID-19. This brings the count of cumulative cases since the beginning of the 2021-22 school year to 380. In the interview, Columbia said that there have been “a few days [this week] where we’ve had 25 [new] cases in the district.”

The RSU 9 board meets again on Tuesday, Jan. 25. RSU 9 states in the update that “the decision [to allow contact-tracing suspensions] will be reviewed in February.”

This article has been updated to include interviews with RSU 9 administration not included in the print edition.

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