WINTHROP — The Winthrop School Committee unanimously decided Wednesday to require protective masks inside school buildings and participate in pool testing as officials prepare for the start of the 2021-22 academic year.

The committee also agreed to check in every two weeks to consider data and the spread of COVID-19 at area schools and within Kennebec County.

The updated return-to-school plan includes five days of in-person learning per week, with no remote option, 3 feet of physical distancing between students and assigned seating on buses and at cafeterias.

In addition, no visitors will be allowed in the schools during school hours, unless they are providers of contracted services. Each school will have an isolation area, too, and after-school activities will be permitted to use the buildings.

School Committee members were largely in agreement and fielded questions for medical professionals from the community who attended Wednesday night’s meeting.

The professionals, including school nurses, recommended following government guidelines for keeping students safe from the spread of COVID-19 and limiting quarantining time among students to help with student’s social and emotional needs.


Updated COVID-19 protocols stipulate that with universal masking and 3-foot distancing from one another, close contacts to positive COVID-19 case must quarantine only if they have symptoms. This is also true for students who opt into pool testing.

Winthrop has decided to add both to their back-to-school guidelines. If the district did not participate in either universal masking or pool testing, a whole classroom, in some cases, would be considered a “close contact.”

Tim Wess, a member of the School Committee, said he had “struggled on the topic” and spoken with others on all sides of the debate.

“The masks aren’t my concern. The quarantine is my concern,” he said. “Kids have to be in school. Kids can’t be alone.”

Students will have mask breaks at their desks when possible, according to Superintendent James Hodgkin.

Dr. Dianna Baker, a physician at Winthrop Pediatrics, suggested keeping things consistent, such as having assigned seating and utilizing group work among the same students.


Hodgkin said seating will be assigned on buses, in classrooms and at lunch.

Hodgkin added that checking back at School Committee meetings every two weeks will ensure the district is on the right path and allow the committee to figure out when certain guidelines can be lifted.

Dr. Jennifer McConnell, a physician in Winthrop, said she expected the next two weeks would provide important information on how the delta variant is spreading in Kennebec County.

“It is likely more-restorative measures may be implemented if the number of cases rise in our community or if there is ‘spread’ in our schools,” Hodgkin wrote in a letter to the community after the back-to-school plan was adjusted.

The school nurses in the audience Wednesday night urged the district to go forward with pool testing, but said they were worried about the amount of time it could take because the district has few nurses. To participate, parents must opt their children into the process.

Winthrop is the third school district in the Augusta-area to participate in pool testing. Augusta Public Schools made the decision in May and Regional School Unit 12 added pool testing Tuesday to the district’s back-to-school plan.


Pool testing is done on a weekly basis, with classrooms having assigned times during the week when students would swab their noses. School Nurse Jeannine Ross said the swabbing is the easiest part, with the administrative aspects more tedious.

The tests are sent via FedEx to labs, according to school officials. If a test comes back positive, a BinaxNOW test is given to the students in the pool to narrow the positive cases and the process is done again.

“Maybe we could use COVID techs,” Ross said, “But it would be impossible to pool test 100% of the kids (in the district) and to do the other school nurse things in addition.”

Hodgkin said each school in Winthrop has COVID-19 tech positions, but only the grade school position has been filled.

Winthrop also installed two systems to help with air ventilation.

Baker said universal masking and pool testing are important, adding she had a patient last year who had three 10-day quarantine periods over two months.

“Winthrop did amazing last year,” Baker said at Wednesday night’s meeting. “I did have to test a lot of kids, but when they came and saw me and I asked where the exposure happened and when they told me at school, I was relieved.

“With all children masked there, the chance of having a positive case is very low. Zero children I saw with exposure at school became positive.”

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