Regional School Unit 20 Board of Directors approved a policy and associated procedures on testing students and staff who demonstrate COVID-19 symptoms at Searsport elementary, middle and high schools, at its Feb. 9 meeting.

The testing would be administered by the RSU 20 school nurse, Monica Furrow, and would involve taking a nasal swab. Furrow said the Abbott BinaxNOW rapid antigen test gives results in approximately 15-20 minutes.

While the Food and Drug Administration said the BinaxNOW tests are “usually highly accurate,” false positives can still occur. Searsport School Board Director Anthony Bagley expressed concerns about district liability over possible false negative or positive results at the previous Jan. 12 board meeting.

At that time, the board decided to seek legal advice from school attorneys at Drummond Woodsum before moving forward with testing.

In a conversation with The Republican Journal Feb. 11, RSU 20 Superintendent Chris Downing said the attorneys made only slight changes to the phrasing of the consent document.

At this point, he said, no one has been tested and the permission sheets will go out to parents and guardians within the next few days. Downing said he felt the test would be an effective tool, saying it is the same test administered at Walgreens pharmacy.

“Even if permission has been given,” Downing said, “the school nurse will still call parents of the student” before administering the test.

At the Jan. 12 school board meeting, Furrow said the district had received 200 test kits and they were available for students or staff if they felt symptoms while at school.

Furrow said her office will call parents and let them know their student is having symptoms, and while waiting for the parents to come and pick them up, administer the swab test.

If the test is negative, she said, the student would still go home, as there is an illness, and recommended they follow up with their doctor. "If they feel better within 24 hours, if symptoms have improved, and if they are fever-free," students would be allowed to return to school, she said.

Students testing positive would need to follow up with their doctor, who would determine if a PCR test should then be administered within 48 hours. They would need to isolate according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention protocols and could return after being directed to do so by the agency.

According to the Maine Department of Education, there will be no charge to families for the testing and the school nurse will communicate results to parents or guardians along with instructions on next steps.

Furrow said to date there would have been "very few" instances where she would have needed to use the test, because parents have heeded the Maine CDC protocols of keeping children home when sick. "Less than 20 kids would have used the test," she said.

Decline in state funding

In other district news, Downing said because of decreasing enrollment and increases in land valuations, the district this year is looking at a $786,000 drop in state funding.

“This is a large decrease in our subsidy,” he said. “And is something we really need to work on.”

This is not just an RSU 20 issue, Downing said; neighboring districts like Regional School Unit 3 have a similarly large deficit.

Besides people moving out of the area for economic reasons, he said, families are also choosing to home-school their children — this year eight new students were added to the ranks of kids being educated at home, for a total of 48 in RSU 20.

Also telling, Downing said, is the number of pre-K students being enrolled in the district. This year there were only seven, down from 17 last year.

“Families don’t want to send their young ones to school,” he said.

Bagley said it was the steepest decrease he had ever experienced while on the board.

According to the state calculation for funding public education, enrollment dropped in RSU 20 from 468 in October 2019, to 401 in October 2020.

Four district teachers retiring

Downing recognized four retiring teachers, who together have taught over 100 years in the district.

Jan Austin, special education teacher at the elementary school, has taught in the district for 24 years. Claire Guse, science teacher at the high school, has also taught for 24 years in RSU 20 and “many more years beyond,” Downing said. Regina Seamens, fourth grade teacher at the elementary school, has been with the district for 34 years. And Ray Wirth, English teacher at the high school, has taught 25 years in the district.

Downing congratulated all four, saying, “they will be missed and all are great teachers.”