Schools with universal masking no longer need to contact the trace
AUGUSTA — The Maine Department of Education announced Wednesday that schools with universal masking policies may choose to suspend their contact tracing programs.
Administrators at several schools with universal masking policies say they will stop contact tracing but will continue to notify staff and students when their pooled COVID-19 test pool has a positive result.
Test groups are often made up of students and staff who are in the same class.
The decision, which has the support of 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 schools during an already challenging school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Education Commissioner Pender Makin and Maine Principal Center for Disease Control Nirav D. Shah in a DOE news. Release. “These recommendations allow teachers and school staff to focus their limited resources on educating students in the classroom in the safest way possible. Getting vaccinated remains the most important step in protecting our school communities.
The omicron variant is much more contagious and spreads earlier than previous variants, reducing the effectiveness of contact tracing.
“While the goal of contact tracing is to provide timely notification to everyone who may have been exposed to COVID-19, principals have reported that contact tracing in a timely and thorough manner is becoming increasingly difficult , if not impossible, for school staff given the rapid spread of the omicron variant,” according to the press release.
Contact tracing is time-consuming and labor-intensive, which short-staffed schools have little to lose. Notifying families that their children should be quarantined for 10 days in the fall was exceptionally difficult for nurses and support staff, who often faced verbal abuse.
The state encourages schools to continue contact tracing if they have the capacity, but the new policy recognizes that some schools may benefit from allocating their limited resources to other mitigation strategies, such as programs. group tests.
Schools that do not have universal masking should continue to contact tracing.
In a memo to the Lewiston school community on Wednesday, Superintendent Jake Langlais said the district will no longer conduct contact tracing.
“The process of identifying a close contact and what happens next can become complex,” Langlais wrote in an email to the Sun Journal on Thursday.
Once a person tested positive, school staff had to determine who was in close contact with that person, leading to a myriad of questions for those identified, including whether they are vaccinated, whether they participate in pooled COVID-19 testing and how long they need to be quarantined. Families should also be called.
“All of this after running the pool test, which is time and effort consuming, and doing the individual follow-up test if any of the pools are positive,” he said.
Lewiston schools 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 children with the services they need to provide and build lasting relationships,” he said. “The staff are resilient, but they are tired after two years of effort.”
Superintendent Cornelia Brown said the Auburn School District will also halt contact tracing. She said the district still plans to notify staff and families when a member of their shared joint testing group tests positive, but school officials still decide how notifications will be sent.
She plans to send an update to families next week.
“We believe that certain notifications to families remain important,” she said. “We are still monitoring all of our pools, we are still doing group testing, and so we are still thinking about how we want to inform families for this, staff and families. We too, like everyone else, are quite stretched in terms of notification procedures and how that happens, and so I appreciate the ministry’s understanding of this for the schools.
Due to another recent policy change, school districts are no longer required to make one-to-one phone calls to let staff and parents know why they or their child are 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 self-quarantine unless they test positive or show symptoms of COVID-19.
USR 16 will take a similar approach to new policy changes.
The reduction in close contact notification requirements will be a huge relief for staff responsible for contact tracing, Superintendent Kenneth Healey said. He hopes the policy changes will allow district nurses to return to some of their normal pre-pandemic 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 contact, Healey said, adding, “The people I have worked have been extremely resilient.”
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