AUGUSTA — In order to have all students in the Augusta Public School System return for in-person classes five days a week this fall, school officials will send out forms of consent to families to allow their children to participate in pool COVID-19 testing.

According to the Maine Department of Education, if a combined 30% of students, faculty and staff in a school building give consent to be tested, social distancing and physical distancing requirements do not have to be followed. That means desks and students can be closer than the allotted 3 feet for children and 6 feet for adults; however, masks still have to be worn and students still have to be 6 feet apart while eating lunch.

The decision came at a recent special School Board meeting as Augusta administrators start to prepare for the fall in the chance social distancing guidelines stay the same until then. School officials talked about how their classrooms may look if social distancing requirements are still in place — one of the main reasons why students may be prevented from attending school five days a week in-person due to a lack of space to host all the children at once.

“We are encouraging families to sign up,” Assistant Superintendent Katy Grondin said. “They have to agree to the pool testing.”

Augusta is so far the only school in central Maine to participate in the program, according to education department spokesperson Kelli Deveaux. Other districts participating include Berwick Academy, Eliot-based Maine School Administrative District 35, the Wiscasset Public Schools, among others.

Grondin emphasized the fact of parents having to give their child permission to participate, but if by chance 30% do not want to participate, social distancing has to be followed. It is for everyone to follow, including teachers and those who are vaccinated. The 30% threshold counts for the specific building, not across the district.

The pool testing is anonymous, but if someone in a class tests positive, then a biometric test has to be done to narrow it down to the person who tested positive. Testing would start the first week of school and it is anticipated by school officials to have a very low positive rate with the frequency at which the testing is done.

Tests would be performed by the students themselves and monitored by a classroom teacher, then shipped off to be looked at and returned 48 hours later. If positive, the need for a class to quarantine would not be required.

Superintendent James Anastasio said if the Department of Education and Center for Disease Control & Prevention lower the restrictions around social and physical distancing, then pool testing would not have to be done.

The School Board unanimously supported the decision after hearing how the Augusta Public Schools could be impacted if physical distancing requirements are still in place in the fall.

At the elementary level, the general consensus among principals if social distancing is required would be having to move students around in either different schools, or through other creative means. Both the elementary schools and Cony Middle and High School would have to purchase new desks and equipment in order to comply.

“Depending on the class size, students would be moving around,” Anastasio said. “You might be asking, ‘Why is the elementary moving some away and taking some in,’ and the answer comes down to where they have space and where they don’t have space. If parents don’t volunteer to move their kids, that and moving teachers can be unsettling. It can be done, but can’t be done without upsetting a lot. That’s if we have physical distancing.”

Anastasio said the goal of the district is to have all students come back.

For the high school level, the biggest issue in bringing students back among the guidelines would be in the cafeteria, in addition to adding a few more teachers to balance spreading out students in the classroom. Though Cony has an open campus and students are able to leave for lunch, Principal Kim Silsby said students still eat in the cafeteria.

“We’d have to add a lunch location and that’s if we maintain a foot difference,” she said, adding the small gymnasium was added as a lunch spot. “If we move to pool testing, the needs are there as much.”

School Board member Staci Fortunado asked about having enough equipment and teachers for the fall in the event there is not a 30% building participation rate and Anastasio said they “will have discussions” in the next couple of days over the hiring processes.

“I love to hear there is a pathway to some sort of normalcy in the fall,” School Board Chair Amanda Olson said.

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