WINTHROP — Superintendent Jim Hodgkin urges families in the Winthrop school district to contact their legislators in an attempt to redefine what is considered a “close contact” to a positive COVID-19 case.

After the district saw almost 50 close contacts in the first week of school, Hodgkin addressed the community in a letter that’s brimming with frustration — a word that appears repeatedly in just the first paragraph. Hodgkin wrote that the district might be “over-quarantining” students. He is unhappy that under current rules, staff and students who have been in close contact with a COVID-positive person are not allowed to immediately return to school even if they themselves test negative. Hodgkin is also flummoxed by the fact that the guidelines don’t take into the account the presence of advanced air filtration system that some schools, including Winthrop’s, have recently installed.

Because the school district has approved measures such as installing the new airflow system, universal masking and pool testing, Hodgkin believes that only students who show symptoms of the virus should have to quarantine.

The district has required mandated masking since the start of school, however, pool testing will go live Monday.

“I am asking that you reach out to your legislators and ask them to push consideration for our schools and other schools that have made this investment,” Hodgkin wrote in the letter.

Quarantining has affected staff as well as students. Some employees have been unable to come to work due to a positive test, or because they had to stay home with their own children who are under quarantine.

“We are taking the most conservative approach quarantining the entire class,” Hodgkin told the Kennebec Journal. “It’s a lot.”

Before the start of the current academic year, the school committee unanimously decided to mandate masking as well as pool testing. The committee argued that for the sake of students’ mental health and education, school is a better place for them to be than at home in relative isolation.

According to the Maine Department of Education, the definition of a close contact is a person who has been within six feet of a confirmed COVID-19 case for more than 15 minutes cumulatively, or someone who had direct contact with the positive person.

However, in a change of protocol this year, if the school requires mask to be worn, not all students in a class have to quarantine after a confirmed COVID-19 case in the classroom. Students do still have to quarantine if they’re a close contact as a result of jointly participating in athletics, sitting on the bus, or eating in the cafeteria — situations where a mask might come off and students could get closer than three feet.

Winthrop spent $300,000 of its coronavirus relief funds on the installation an O2 Prime ventilation system in all three schools. Hodgkin said the technology “eliminates all viruses up to 99.9%,” adding that this “essentially (makes) our classrooms virus free.”

But the Maine Department of Education feels that air filtration systems are “not one of the ways to uniformly bypass quarantine guidelines.”

“Air filtration is recommended, and is a wise investment for helping reduce airborne illness as a preventive strategy for transmission,” said Kelli Deveaux, a spokesperson for Maine DOE. “However, as part of the response strategy, there’s not adequate research at this time to use it as a basis to change the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s definition of close contacts or Maine’s quarantine rules for close contacts.”

Deveaux said the best way for students and teachers to stay in the classroom is for eligible persons to get vaccinated — and that all should participate in pool testing.

At press time, the Winthrop Public Schools had a student vaccination rate of 70% to 74% of eligible students.

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