Some Augusta-area school officials reacted this week to new pandemic guidelines with a mixture of confusion and decisions that go beyond the recommendations.

School officials are also trying to figure out what the new Center for Disease Control & Prevention and Department of Education guidelines mean for their districts and whether the updated guidelines make sense to keep students and staff safe.

The Winthrop Public School Committee reviewed the new guidelines Wednesday night, after having previously voted to follow the CDC guidelines for school procedure. But after reviewing the new changes, committee members decided to incorporate their own adjustments on when a student can return back to school following a positive COVID-19 test due to feeling uneasy about allowing students back to school too soon.

The isolation period for those who test positive went from 10 days to five, and it raised concern for the Winthrop School Committee. The committee decided a student or staff member would have to show proof of a negative test after contracting COVID-19 if they are to return to school between what would be their sixth to 10th isolation days.

The new CDC and education department’s standard operating procedures for schools do not require students to show a negative test upon their arrival back and allow students to come back to school after five days from testing positive if they are asymptomatic.

The Winthrop committee decided an at-home test would work, but that a school nurse would follow up with the student, or staff member at school. They said if there is no test available for the student, to keep in contact with the school nurses and they would find a way to help.

Winthrop doctor Jenn McConnell was on the Zoom meeting and helped the committee navigate their decision. McConnell recommended students and staff members test negative before they return back to school and reminded the committee of what it means to be asymptomatic.

“You’re going to have people positive for COVID-19 on day five and say they feel fine and their symptoms are gone,” she said. “You do not know if they are still positive with the virus, or if they are not without symptoms but still shedding the virus. We don’t know. I think it’s a slippery slope.”

Winthrop officials also said they felt there was mixed guidance over what it means to be a universally-masked school since the committee voted to allow masking to be optional during sports. The school nurses said they heard having masks optional for after-school activities would suggest otherwise, but Superintendent James Hodgkin said it would not be the case since during school students and staff are fully masked.

Hodgkin said sports would follow the same rules for quarantining as the schools.

Regional School Unit 38 had its board of directors meeting Wednesday night, and like Winthrop, looked over the new guidelines to see how the district would respond.

The board ultimately voted to stay on course with CDC guidelines and to follow the recommendations, but unlike Winthrop, students or staff members there will not need a negative test to go back to school following contracting the virus. However, Superintendent Jay Charette reminded families that like before the pandemic, students should not be going to school until they are fever-free for 24-hours.

It has been up to school boards across the state on how they would like to interpret the guidelines and what they think is best for their district. Most Augusta-area schools have chosen to follow the CDC guidelines, but the newly updated guidelines have proven to be confusing, especially as COVID-19 cases across the state rise at an unprecedented rate.

The CDC strongly urges schools to stay in person, but Charette said RSU 38 has seen “climbing cases.” From Dec. 23 to Wednesday, 15 students and seven teachers have tested positive, in what ends up being three days back in school when winter break, is factored in. Charette said the reduced quarantine and the ability to have close contacts come to school will release a burden off school nurses, too.

All of the Winthrop Public Schools have a teacher and staff vaccination rate above at least 90% and the student vaccination rate for Winthrop is between 60-64%. For RSU 38 the staff and teacher vaccination rates in all of the schools are at least above 80% and for students, between 60-64%, according to Maine CDC data.

Charette explained the five-day rule, which board members at RSU 38 expressed confusion over and made him explain. The day someone gets a confirmed test is considered day zero, Charette said, and on the sixth day, if they do not have symptoms, they can come back to school. However, if someone develops symptoms, on day five, or any of the days up until then, the clock starts over to zero.

Besides the amount of time someone who tests positive with COVID-19 has to quarantine if they no longer have symptoms changing from 10 days to five, schools no longer have to make close contacts quarantine if they are a universally masked school, and/or the students or staff members are vaccinated. They just have to monitor if they develop symptoms using the at-home COVID-19 screener.

Hodgkin said based on conversations he has had with other superintendents and the education department, he thinks the shorter quarantine time will help focus on the social and emotional well-being of students.

“We believe that schools are the safest place to be and their concern over social and emotional impact on healthy students now outweighs the concern for COVID-19 among students,” Hodgkin said. “That’s what I’ve heard repeatedly. We know it’s a risk to have kids who are close contacts in school and have the potential of spreading it.”

Both districts said they would not penalize families for keeping their children home for the full 10 days, as previously suggested by the CDC, if it makes them more comfortable.

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