CHELSEA — With an uptick in COVID-19 cases in comparison to last year at Chelsea Elementary School, pool testing has proven to be a silver lining, helping to keep students and staff in school.

Principal Allison Myers gave a presentation to Regional School Unit 12’s board of directors on Thursday night and said in the past week since coming back from Thanksgiving break, the school has had eight positive COVID-19 cases across four different grade levels, but has only had to quarantine five students.

Myers said if this situation happened last year without pool testing and with the former standard operating procedures, 72 individuals, comprising students and staff members, would have had to quarantine. She gave the example of October of last year when there was one positive case in a classroom and all 16 students and their teacher had to quarantine.

“Pool testing is new,” Myers said, noting it started last month. “Twenty-six students originally enrolled and now we are up to 44 and we hope more students enroll. Since it started in the second week of November, 11 students have not had to quarantine since being enrolled.”

She highlighted the ways in which the classroom has been able to return to “normal” because of the way guidelines and pool testing is this year. Students are able to leave their classroom for specials, eat in the cafeteria, work in groups and play with different grade levels outside. Last year, none of these aspects were possible with the standard operating procedures, along with having to keep students in groups.

If a student is enrolled in pool testing, they are tested on a weekly basis for COVID-19. Their nose swab is added to a “pool” and each grouping is tested and delivered back to the school district within 48 hours. If the pool is negative, students go on with their day, but if the pool is positive, the pool is rapid tested in order to figure out where the positive case came from. If there is a positive case and students are enrolled in pool testing, they do not have to quarantine.

Other students who do not need to quarantine are those who are vaccinated. Most recently, children between the ages of 5 and 11 became eligible to get vaccinated. According to the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s dashboard for students eligible to be vaccinated, 95% of students in RSU 12 have received one or more doses of the vaccine up until Nov. 29.

“The cases that form, they don’t seem to be connected, and (it) doesn’t seem to transfer within the school, but seems to be from the outside community,” Myers said.

Superintendent Howie Tuttle later on in the presentation, agreed with Myers and thinks most of the uptick the school is seeing right now is from the holiday season. Collectively, they think the COVID-19 cases are through community transmission, which is at all-time high for the state and Kennebec County.

As for COVID-19 rates across the rest of the district, which includes the towns of Somerville, Alna, Westport Island, Palermo, Windsor, Whitefield and Chelsea, the most recent correspondence went out from the district on Nov. 29 with news of the seven cases at Chelsea, but also, two at Whitefield Elementary School.

Pool testing may be to thank for lower quarantine rates, but also, Myers said there are less students in a classroom this time of year. Regional School Unit 12 was one of the districts that was able to keep all students in the classroom, full-time last year. She said the “average” number of students absent per day is around 50.

“Either they are not feeling well, or they were exposed,” she said. “Sadly, teachers are getting used to that.”

Tuttle said said the district is waiting to see what happens to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration guideline that all employers with over 100 employees ensure every worker is fully vaccinated. That directive is being challenged in federal court right now, but he said for staff who are not vaccinated, they can participate in pool testing and it will suffice.

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