If a group, or pool, comes back positive, students in that group are then given individual, rapid antigen tests that allow administrators to know within 15 minutes which are positive or negative. The goal, McKnight said, is to quickly identify the positive cases and separate those who test positive from the rest of the population to prevent the virus’ spread. In the first step of the process, groups of five to 25 students — who are often in a classroom together all day — are PCR-tested, and their swabs are put inside a large tube. A courier service picks up the samples and brings them to a lab outside Boston. The lab tests the group of samples together, and schools get results within 24 hours. The lab is able to run tests more quickly because it is testing up to 25 samples at once. While masks are now nearly universal in Maine schools, they’re using pool testing as another strategy to keep the virus in check. Regular pool testing is also one way that schools can reduce the number of students who have to quarantine if they’re exposed to a case and aren’t showing symptoms.
Some 384 of Maine’s 720 public and private schools had signed up as of Friday. About 50 have implemented the program so far, Ginkgo communications specialist Joseph Fridman said. “Maine signed up and has helped shape a nationwide program,” said Matthew McKnight, chief commercial officer of Ginkgo Bioworks and an Orono native.
The point of pool testing is ultimately to keep students in the classroom in a “risk-mitigated manner,” McKnight said. Individual schools can decide how they conduct the testing, but many are doing it right in the classroom with the help of a nurse. Concentric, a branch of Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks, is also conducting pool testing in Arizona, California, North Carolina, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
The Bangor School Department has applied to participate in the pool testing program, but has not yet received the necessary supplies, district spokesperson Ray Phinney said Friday. Hampden-based RSU 22, with about 2,200 students, has 980 students and staff enrolled in its pool testing program that began on Sept. 7, said Brittany Layman, the district’s health and wellness coordinator. The Hermon School Department, with about 1,000 students, had more than 600 people signed up for pool testing as of Thursday. Nearly 500 people in the district of 1,287 students have signed up for pool testing so far, Doty said.
Old Town-based Regional School Unit 34 has found testing supplies sparse, particularly for rapid testing, which has slowed down the beginning of pool testing in the district. With fewer supplies, there may be times when the district prioritizes testing for younger students who are ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, Director of Curriculum Jon Doty said. As districts have started to implement pool testing, they’ve found a shortage of supplies to be a challenge. In addition, not all students and teachers so far in participating districts have opted in to regular testing.
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