SEARSPORT — Regional School Unit 20 Board of Directors approved implementing pool testing in the classroom Sept. 14.

School nurse Monica Furrow told the board that the process of batch-testing students is working at other schools. In one example she mentioned, five positive cases were discovered the first day of testing.

The process is designed to catch asymptomatic positive cases before they develop symptoms, she said, so students can be removed from the school to quarantine. The tests will be conducted in classrooms each week and can be done on seven to 10 kids at a time. Furrow estimated the process of swabbing each student will take about five minutes. The pool samples will be sent out for testing and results returned within 48 hours.

If any tests come back positive, each student in that pool will be tested individually with a BinaxNOW rapid testing kit, which gives results in 15 minutes. Anyone receiving a positive result would be sent home to isolate for 10 days and close contacts notified. Students who do not have a consent form for testing would be sent home to quarantine if someone in their class tested positive, Furrow said.

According to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Maine Department of Education’s “Standard Operating Procedures,” if a classroom does not have assigned seating, all students and teachers are considered close contacts — defined as exposure within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes within 24 hours of a positive test.

The SOP goes on to say that close contacts must quarantine for 10 days from the last known COVID-19 exposure. Every close contact will receive a letter alerting them to the exposure and providing guidance.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. A student who is considered a close contact may forgo quarantine and return to the classroom if they are fully vaccinated, have had COVID-19 within 90 days of the exposure, or participate in weekly school pool testing and exposure was limited to school. “This, of course, is as long as you’re not showing symptoms,” Furrow said.

Even though these close contacts can return to the classroom, they still must quarantine outside the school day. She could not explain the reasoning behind the rule, calling it “tricky,” and adding, “It’s not my rule.”

Also, if the school has a mandatory masking policy (which RSU 20 schools do not) and the exposure was between 3 and 6 feet, and there was no physical contact in the classroom, the exposed student does not need to quarantine from regular school activities. This exception does not apply to teachers, staff or other adults in the classroom.

The reason students are allowed back to the classroom even though they have been exposed, Furrow said, is that transmission is caught early, and “the viral load behind the positive case has not been high enough” to shed to the other students. And since the pools are tested weekly, if something were to develop, it would be caught quickly.

Before a student can take part in the pool testing program, she said, parents must sign a consent form allowing the school to perform the test.

Board Chairman Anthony Bagley pushed back, saying the rules handed down by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and adopted by the Maine Department of Education lack common sense. “It is proven that someone who is vaccinated can still transmit the virus,” he said. “This SOP is full of so many holes.”

Regarding the universal masking exception Bagley had harsh words. “It is a way politicians are forcing you to do something. They say, if you mandate a mask you won’t have to quarantine.” If 90% of the students came to school with a mask on, because the district did not have a mask mandate in place, they would still be forced to quarantine. “That is asinine,” he said.

When he asked Furrow for her opinion on the mask exception, she encouraged him to call the Department of Education to voice his concerns. “I may have called the department myself,” she said. “…if we want things changed, we need to speak up.”

Board member Kris Braga asked Furrow if she was in favor of pool testing. “I am in favor of keeping as many students in school as we can, and that has always been my top priority,” she said. “If this is going to help keep kids in school, then I am all for it.”