With COVID-19 cases falling as vaccination rates rise, schools throughout Maine should have no trouble opening up to full in-person learning at the start of the next academic year. But that’s not to say that it will come without risk or uncertainty.

When students return in September, COVID-19 likely still will be a threat, however diminished. After months of living with the virus, many people remain wary about being indoors with others, particularly in areas where vaccination rates are low.

And, in a logistical challenge, some schools are struggling to find the space to fit everyone while still maintaining the proper distance.

Now, there’s a way for schools to mitigate risk, alleviate worries and fit everyone in the same school — but to do it, they’ll need the help of their community members.

Augusta this week became the latest school system to join the state’s pooled testing program, in which groups of students, teachers and staff are regularly tested for COVID-19, their individual swabs “pooled” together into one batch to save on testing costs.

If the pooled sample tests positive, then everyone in the group is tested individually so that the proper quarantine procedures can be followed.

Pooled testing can, at low cost and with little disruption, catch an outbreak before it happens, either in the school or out in the community. It’s a particular good method for catching asymptomatic cases, which are more likely to be found among the younger population.

One study, from the RAND Corp., found that weekly pooled testing lower in-school infections by an estimated 50%.

In Massachusetts, where about half of school districts are taking part in a pooled testing program, schools have found that the regular testing helps teachers, students and staff whose experience at a school may otherwise be marred by fear and anxiety. With all the tests showing very few cases in schools, they can be confident that the precautionary measures being taken are working.

Beyond helping to minimize the threat of COVID-19, the pooled testing program could also help many schools get back to regular order. Schools that join the program can ignore the state distancing restrictions now in place, allowing them to fit all their students in the school at once — something not possible in many schools when desks must be 3 feet apart.

Under those restrictions, Augusta officials said they would have to move elementary school students around to different buildings, and buy more desks and equipment. Now, they can save those costs — as long as enough people participate.

The state program only works if at least 30% of the people in a given school building agree to take part. For students, that means parents have to sign a permission slip.

The testing is anonymous, and it works. It’s paid for with federal COVID relief funds.

School districts, particularly those struggling with space issues, should step forward to participate.

Parents and students, too, should step up — and help their schools and communities take the necessary steps for a safe, productive and joyful school year.



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