SOUTH CHINA — The coronavirus pandemic continues to run rampant across the state, but a handful of local schools are participating in an increased testing effort to help stop the spread.

The Abbott rapid antigen COVID-19 tests are made for individuals exhibiting at least one of the most common COVID-19 symptoms or two of the less common symptoms. The testing process involves self-swabbing the lower portion of one’s nostrils and is processed on site by adding six drops of a liquid reagent to the swab on a test card. The tests are free of cost to students and staff.

“We just wait the 15 minutes for the reagent to be working, and we read the results right there,” Erskine Academy school nurse Tara Oxley said. “It appears like a pregnancy test does, two stripes is positive, one stripe is negative. It’s pretty simple to decipher the difference.”

Erskine Academy Headmaster Michael McQuarrie demonstrates the new rapid antigen testing. Courtesy of Tara Oxley

CDC spokesperson Robert Long said that schools are generally requesting the amount of tests equivalent to 10% of its student body. He couldn’t offer speculation as to why some schools would not participate, but acknowledged challenges schools face in accessing nurses and medical professionals.

Erskine Academy, Vassalboro Community School, Maine Central Institute, Pittsfield-based Maine School Administrative District 53 and Fairfield’s Maine Academy of Natural Sciences are among the dozens of the schools statewide using rapid antigen COVID-19 tests.

Erskine Academy in South China started utilizing the tests before the holiday break. It received 160 tests on Dec. 18 and conducted six tests before the break. The private school has an enrollment of 540 in grades 9-12. Although the school is private, 97% of the students are publicly funded from the towns of Chelsea, China, Jefferson, Palermo, Somerville, Vassalboro, Whitefield and Windsor.

Rapid antigen testing supplies are being used as dozens of schools statewide. Courtesy of Tara Oxley

To date, Erskine Academy has had five cases of COVID-19 with individuals associated with the school and 67 dismissals or absences of students or staff due to COVID-19 symptoms. The school has also gone fully remote on two occasions this year due to COVID-19 situations. Students return to school Jan. 4 in the district’s hybrid model, and Erskine Academy Headmaster Michael McQuarrie believes access to rapid testing will keep more students in school.

“It was difficult to discern any seasonal illness from the actual symptoms of the virus,” McQuarrie said. “Having this immediate feedback, those people who are symptomatic but we can rule out for the virus, they’re able to stay here uninterrupted in person.”

The tests expire in April and school officials hope there is more availability in the spring. Getting students and staff back to school sooner is the biggest plus of the in-school tests, although Oxley hesitated to jump on at first. Students and staff waiting at home delayed contact tracing processes, waiting upward of a week for test results.

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“As the school year started, we were sending out a lot of students and staff due to symptoms of COVID, and not being able to differentiate it from other kinds of illnesses,” Oxley said. “After seeing how many were being impacted by having to stay out of school without results, it just seemed like the right thing to do to have these tests available at school.”

Vassalboro Community School, which enrolls 395 students in grades K-8, previously shifted to remote learning three times due to COVID-19 situations. The district has dealt with four cases and returns to its hybrid learning plan Jan. 4. The school got 80 testing kits in the middle of November and has completed 10 tests so far.

Tests are time sensitive and are reserved for those with symptoms; asymptomatic carriers are not taking the in-school tests.

“It’s definitely helped to prevent,” Vassalboro Community School nurse MaryAnn Fortin said. “It kind of gives us some piece of mind to know that even though you have symptoms, you’ve tested negative for COVID-19.”

Vassalboro Community School Principal Megan Allen referenced a recent scenario where the test helped prevent extended exposure. A parent of a student had notified her of a positive test. The child was symptomatic, so Fortin met with the family outside of school to administer the test. The test was positive, but the school was able to continue with in-person learning until a separate situation made the school go remote. Quickly conducting contact tracing can stop the spread.

“We were able to then look at the contact tracing and figure out exposure,” Allen said. “We’ve seen how quickly it grows and spreads, so if you can get a jump on possible exposures, it allows you to quarantine that much more quickly.”

“It’s just hopefully another ring of security,” Vassalboro Superintendent Alan Pfeiffer added. “If something triggers this, then that puts us in action.”

The Maine CDC continues processing applications from schools, which can take several weeks as districts must apply for and be granted federal waivers for permission to utilize the tests. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has a form letter for parental consent for districts to use before starting the program. School officials from across the region credited communities for their positive response and willingness to participate in the rapid testing program.

“It just brings peace of mind to people,” said Fortin, the Vassalboro nurse. “It’s just another layer of security and making families feel more confident about sending kids to school.”

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