PORTLAND — Every school day morning, Portland resident Kerri Leclair gets a text from Portland School System at 6 a.m. reminding her to check her daughter for symptoms before arriving at school.

The measure was put in place this school year to help keep COVID-19 out of Portland schools. So far, the symptom screening and the other precautions put in place — social distancing, a hybrid model of learning (half in-person, half remote) and requiring students and staff to wear face masks — have seemed to work. As of Oct. 1, there had been no positive tests among students or staff, although 82 students and staff tracked or quarantined after showing possible symptoms.

While Leclair and her husband remember to check their child’s symptoms, not everyone sending their kids to school this fall is falling suit. Through the first two weeks of school, upwards of 40% of students are not completing or reporting the daily symptom checks before they get to school. The average response rate for the first week of school (Sept. 14-18) was 59%, rising only to 61% for the second week of school (Sept. 21-25).

“It is not that students are coming to schools symptomatic,” Superintendent Xavier Botana told The Forecaster. “By and large, our families understand the importance of not doing that. It is mostly a concern that they are not receiving the daily messages.”

Approximately 1,000 families in the district are not getting the daily text or email symptom check reminders. It is a number district leaders are trying to reduce.

“I wish everyone would do the screening ahead of time, but I also know what mornings before school look like at a house with small children, and sometimes things fall through the cracks,” said Erica Lovejoy, whose daughter is a first-grader at Talbot Community School.

If the survey is not completed by parents or not completed on time, school nurses have to track down the student before he or she is cleared to attend classes.

“It is taking more time than we had planned. We had hoped it would be a handful or so, not almost half the kids,” said Tina Veilleux, the district’s nursing coordinator.

Veilleux said overall parents seem to be pretty vigilant and have set a low threshold in terms of keeping their child at home if there is a chance he or she is sick.

“At this point, we are not finding kids showing up to school sick,” she said.

When a child is showing symptoms at school, Veilleux said, they are sent to the isolation space in the nurse’s office while they wait to be picked up by their parent or guardian, who is encouraged to call their child’s health care provider. That space can accommodate only two or three students and Veilleux worries space will be at a premium when cold and flu season hits later this fall.

Leclair said she has been impressed with “the communication, policies and procedures” in place at Rowe Elementary School, where her daughter is a second grader, but does feel the process could be improved.

“If I would change anything about the current procedure, I’d have every child’s temperature checked on their way into school and not rely on the at-home screening,” she said. “While I’d like to believe that every parent is being upfront and honest with the screenings, I’m more confident in the teachers and staff in recognizing symptoms once the kids are at school. I cannot imagine the stress on a single parent that has an inflexible job to get to and a kid with a vague symptom that may very well be allergies or a little sniffle. It would be very tempting to say that the child has no symptoms and have them go into school without being checked at the door. But I know that staffing and time limitations makes checking each child impossible.”

All in all, Leclair said, she feels confident her daughter is safe while at school. So does Lovejoy.

“As long as my child’s school continues to do symptom checks outside of the school building with everyone wearing masks I feel OK about that system,” she said.

Botana wants to keep it that way.

That is why he has not recommended students in elementary school return to full-time in-person instruction until at least the end of the trimester on Dec. 4. The hope had been to have kindergarten through fifth-grade students return to the classroom five days a week by Oct. 13, but Botana reversed course due to concerns about the staffing levels needed and difficulty in maintaining proper distancing that comes with a larger student body.

“Health data alone wasn’t the rationale for not returning students to school,” Botana said.

The board of education was expected to take up Botana’s recommendation Oct. 6.

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