Optional pool testing for COVID-19 will soon be available for Westbrook K-6 students, a move school officials say will help keep positive cases low and schools open.

The optional pool testing, using shallow nose swabs, will be conducted on multiple groups of seven to 10 teachers and students once a week. Nurses will help children take the test at specific testing areas in the school. Pool testing results are expected to be returned within two days. If a test in the pool is positive, instant individual tests will be given to the members of that group, allowing the schools to react quickly, Superintendent Peter Lancia told the school committee Sept. 15.

Officials expect the testing to start in two to three weeks. Plans for elementary school pool testing are underway in other Maine communities, including in Freeport, Lewiston and Portland.

Three Westbrook parents at the school committee spoke in favor of pool testing, including David Morse, a city councilor.

“I’m one of those parents if you asked me earlier this summer, I would have said I wasn’t interested in having my son participate, because my 5-year-old is not enthusiastic about being swabbed and the risk seemed low,” Morse said. “But then came the delta variant and we are living in a different situation than just a few months ago.”

Equity is also at play, Assistant Superintendent Kim O’Donnell said.

“We have folks who can’t take time off or have family who can’t step in and take care of a child, so that helps us level the playing field in terms of making school accessible and keeping kids in school,”  O’Donnell said. “We hope this builds confidence we are doing what we can to keep our community and students safe.”

A major benefit of pool testing is that it allows unvaccinated close contacts to avoid quarantine, she said.

Students who are asymptomatic will receive rapid tests from school nurses; students with symptoms will get the test outside of school. All people with negative tests taking part in pool testing do not have to quarantine.

Without pool testing, all close contacts to positive cases quarantine. People who are close contacts, but do not take part in pool testing regardless of vaccination status, have to quarantine if a close contact has a positive test. Quarantines last for 10 days.

Currently, vaccines are not available for those 12 and under.

Follow-up negative tests done privately do not exempt students from quarantine following a positive test.

Parents who sign up for pool testing also may later take their child out of pool testing.

Amanda Cranst, the sole dissenting parent at the meeting, said that having asymptomatic children who do not take part in pool testing, but are close contacts to positive cases, quarantine, is “coercion”  because students in pool testing have the chance to stay in school despite close contact.

“I have questions about the goal of pool testing. Is it to reduce spread or cases? Is this to keep kids in school? How are kids who had it treated, are they exempt? Isolating kids as close contacts for not pool testing is coercion,” Cranst said. 

Committee Chairperson Person Noreen Poitras, the only board member who voted against implementing pool testing, said she worried that if some kids are absent after a test, others may alienate them.

“I think you’re segregating pool-tested kids and non-pool tested,” Poitras said, adding that schools should not be performing the tests.

Lancia was not available for additional comment on the meeting by American Journal deadline.

The pool testing will be paid for through a federal grant and brings no extra costs to the schools, officials said.

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