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Despite early challenges, schools hope pooled testing will keep kids in the classroom this year

pooled testing station.jpg
Courtesy of Jon Doty
RSU 34
A pooled testing station in RSU 34, which serves Old Town, Alton and Bradley.

As Maine schools enter their third pandemic-affected year, they have a new tool that officials are hoping will lead to fewer interruptions. It's called "pooled testing" and is designed to identify COVID-19 cases early, and keep more students in the classroom. But in some districts, a shortage of labor and supplies has already challenged those efforts.

This story is part of our ongoing series "Making School Work", where we'll be documenting the experiences of students, parents, teacher and administrators as they return to the classroom in another school year full of rapid change. If you'd like to share your own stories with us, visit mainepublic.org/makingschoolwork.

On the steps outside of Clinton Elementary School, sixth-grader Wyatt Hanson rips open a tiny plastic bag and pulls out a thin testing swab, just a few inches long.

"You open the package, grab it from the tip. And you have a little white end on it. And all you have to do is put it where you're comfortable," Hanson said, showing off the swab's white tip.

Hanson said he was nervous the first time he stuck a swab in his nose, because an earlier COVID-19 test had brought tears to his eyes.

"This was a lot better than those ones," he said. "Because you just have to put it in where you're comfortable — swirl it four times in both nostrils. And then you're done."

The swab is then placed in a vial with a handful of other swabs from students. From there, those groups of swabs — or pools — are sent to labs, and their results are returned in a day or two. If it comes back positive, more testing is done.

It's a process playing out every week in hundreds of classrooms across Maine -- all part of a strategy that local and state officials hope will isolate cases and keep kids like Wyatt in school, even in the face of a COVID-19 surge this fall.

"So I think the fact that, this is where we are right now, it makes frequent testing even more important," said Emily Poland, the school nurse consultant with the Maine Department of Education. Poland says the strategy is an important part of schools' COVID-19 mitigation strategy, in addition to universal masking and vaccination.

And Poland says under the state's protocols, students who are considered a "close contact" of a COVID case, and choose to participate in pooled testing every week, don't have to quarantine from school and stay home.

"They can continue to do all of the normal school day activities, and they can even continue to do all of their after-school activities, including their sports," she said.

Already, more than 440 Maine schools have signed up for the program, and more than 120 have begun weekly testing. But quickly ramping up the statewide program has required a substantial logistical effort: the state and its partners are supplying supplies, training, staff and transportation, free of cost, using more than $40 million in federal funds.

The state is partnering with the company Concentric by Ginkgo Bioworks. Chief Commercial Officer Matthew McKnight said the company is using a wide network of couriers and staffing agencies to go to dozens of schools each week, administer tests, then transport them to nearby labs and get results in a few days.

"All of that is built to be able to support essentially, if you needed to, the 55 million K-12 students in America," McKnight said. "And so that enables us to really support the 400 schools today, hopefully many more, in Maine. And it's high on our list, recognizing that schools really are stretched, to make sure that we're doing as much as we can to put these tools in their hands."

Schools say they've welcomed that help this fall. But launching the new programs amidst a chaotic beginning to the school year has been a challenge for some districts. A few say they're still waiting for staff members that they had been promised to help them administer the tests.

Last month, the Mt. Blue Regional School District in Farmington put out a job listing in hopes of hiring its own pooled testing coordinator — but to no avail.

'We haven't been able find anyone yet," said Curriculum Coordinator Laura Columbia. "So it's probably going to be me." Columbia said she may have to set aside some of her normal duties in order to help run the program.

"I have all these different responsibilities — but when it comes down to it, it's having kids in schools. That's my number one priority. So if we're not able to find someone, things will just have to shift, on what my priorities are, to keep kids in school," she said.

Emily Poland, with the Maine Department of Education, worries that part of the burden could fall on school nurses, who she says are already overworked as they manage case loads and contact tracing.

"I think it wouldn't have been so much of a burden if we were trying to start this when we weren't in a surge," Poland said. "But the fact is, the workloads of our school staff, our school nurses, is already unmanageable. And to try to step this up is difficult."

But most districts say they're optimistic about the program's potential, especially after two tumultuous school years disrupted by the virus. York Superintendent Lou Goscinski said last year, one class in his district had to miss 40 days of school because of quarantines.

"And that was a real struggle for some of our kids," Goscinski said. "And that was a real concern of mine, that some students were missing a lot of days of school and having to work remotely."

So despite the recent surge, Goscinski is hoping that mitigation measures such as masking and pooled testing will mean fewer interruptions — and more learning — in the year ahead.

Corrected: September 23, 2021 at 10:46 AM EDT
A previous version of this piece included a photo caption that incorrectly described the location of RSU 34.