AUGUSTA — Pooled COVID-19 testing in Maine schools is set to end by mid-May, according to an announcement from the state Wednesday. However some central Maine school districts have decided to end their programs earlier.

The current variant of COVID-19, BA.2, is more contagious than previous strains, and it can spread faster than the pooled test would be able to detect it within a classroom. Therefore, the state departments of Education and Health and Human Services have decided to end the testing program by May 13.

Instead, the state is offering more than a million at-home test kits to school districts, enough for every K-12 school student and staff member to receive a free rapid antigen test kit with five to six tests.   

At the Augusta Public School’s board of education meeting Wednesday night, Superintendent James Anastasio said the district would end pooled testing come May. Since the board of education voted previously to follow the Maine CDC guidelines, there was no formal vote to end pooled testing. 

Anastasio said the district ordered around 3,000 at-home testing kits to send home with students and staff members with the anticipation they will become responsible for reporting their positive tests to their respected school, if positive. 

On Wednesday, the Wales-based Regional School Unit 4 board of directors voted unanimously to immediately end their pooled testing program in response to the state’s announcement.

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Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Assessment & Instruction Kathy Martin said the district has been identifying one COVID-19 case on average through the program each week. Carlton added that just 10% of students participated in the program. 

The district has already ordered at-home test kits for the school community and will distribute them with instructions when they arrive.

Lewiston schools ended their program earlier this month. In a message to the school community, Superintendent Jake Langlais acknowledged that the testing program provides comfort to students, staff and parents, however he said the labor-intensive program has been challenging to run.

“(Pooled testing) does disrupt the school day and requires a big lift of staff,” Langlais wrote. “We felt it responsible to continue for a couple more weeks so we could see how the test results would go with masks being optional … to be on the safe side of things.”

At the time, the testing program was identifying less than 10 positives each week, with many schools having none at all.

Districts that did not participate in pooled testing also have the ability to order the free testing kits. Gardiner-area Maine School Administrative District 11 did not participate in pooled testing, yet the district said at its board meeting Wednesday they ordered COVID-19 testing kits to send home to families.

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According to the Maine DOE, since the Department of Health and Human Services launched the free at-home testing program for schools on April 7, 125 Maine schools have placed orders for 528,040 tests. 

Orders will be accepted through April 15 and shipped to schools the week of April 25.

Assistant Superintendent of the Augusta Public Schools, Katy Grondin, said if a student becomes ill at school, the schools still have the ability to test students for COVID-19, if they previously gave consent to be tested through pooled testing. If they did not participate in pooled testing previously, a call will be made to their home asking if the child can be tested.

“With feedback from nurses, there is a letter that will go out saying we will suspend pooled testing the week after (April) vacation,” Grondin said at the board meeting. “Then we go and talk about the (testing) kits. We are going to continue to test when suspicious of staff or students having symptoms, we still have tests to do so.”

Pooled testing started in May 2021 but became more widely used by school districts in December 2021, around the time COVID-19 cases picked up within the state, according to the Maine Department of Education. To participate, school boards had to opt their district into it, as well as families having to opt their students into it.

At the program’s peak in December, 416 schools were conducting weekly pooled testing with an average participation rate of 40%.

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