MEDIA RELEASE: Maine CDC and Maine Department of Education Revise COVID-19 Guidance for Schools to Support In-Person Learning During Omicron Surge

AUGUSTA – The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine CDC) and the Maine Department of Education (DOE) announced today further revisions to the Maine CDC’s Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for responding to COVID-19 in schools.

Following discussions with school superintendents, the Maine CDC has revised the SOP to state that schools enforcing a universal masking policy may choose to suspend contract tracing in light of the transmissibility of the Omicron variant and its impact on the effectiveness of contact tracing.

The Maine CDC has determined that, because the Omicron variant is far more contagious than prior variants, has a shorter incubation period, and tends to spread in the early part of an infection, it is contributing to higher levels of community transmission, making community exposures more frequent and, consequently, reducing the effectiveness of contact tracing in schools. While the goal of contact tracing is to provide a timely notification to all individuals who may have been exposed to COVID-19, school superintendents have reported that conducting contact tracing in a timely and thorough manner is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for school personnel given the fast spread of the Omicron variant.

The revised SOP permits schools with universal masking policies to suspend contact tracing if they are not able to conduct it effectively, in order to rededicate limited and tired staff to focus on other COVID-19 mitigation strategies, like detecting and preventing infected people from being in schools via pooled testing, to help keep kids in the classroom. Schools that have the resources to contact trace effectively are encouraged to continue doing so.

“Keeping kids safely in the classroom is crucial to their education and minimizes disruption to the lives of their parents, who often have to stay home from work or are put in a child care crunch when their kids can’t be in school,” said Governor Mills. “Of course, the best way to protect the health of students and to keep them in the classroom is to get vaccinated, which will help slow the spread of COVID.”

“The rapid spread of the Omicron variant has further burdened Maine’s schools during an already challenging school year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Education Commissioner Pender Makin and Maine CDC Director Nirav D. Shah. “These recommendations allow teachers and school staff to focus their limited resources on educating students in the classroom as safely as possible. Getting vaccinated remains the most important step to protecting our school communities.”

“We are grateful for the ongoing efforts of Maine CDC as they continue to provide schools with the guidance and protocols that will protect the physical and emotional health of staff and students, and preserve the critically important opportunity for in-person learning,” said Maine School Board Association Executive Director Steve Bailey.  “As the governance team of their local education systems, including the safety, time and resources of their schools, our school boards have the responsibility to ensure they have a universal masking policy in place that will both keep students and staff safe and permit school staff to suspend contact tracing for cases of COVID-19 in schools. We stand ready to help them in these efforts.”

“On behalf of school and district leaders across Maine, we welcome today’s guidance, which provides some relief to school staff, especially our nurses, who have continued to exceed safety protocols with extensive and labor intensive contract tracing and notification efforts,” said Maine School Superintendents Association Executive Director Eileen King.  “Schools with universal masking policies in place for all indoor school sponsored activities will be able to shift their time and attention to other strategies that ensure the physical and emotional health and safety of staff and students. We thank Dr. Shah and his team for engaging superintendents in discussions about the implementation logistics and implications of Maine’s school prevention and response strategies for COVID-19, and for providing insight and balance to the science that informs community health decisions.”

The change is consistent with those adopted recently by other New England states and builds on other revisions from the Maine CDC that, among other updates, reflect recently updated guidance from the U.S. CDC on quarantine and isolation periods. All of these revisions are designed to support in-person learning, thereby promoting the health and well-being of school students, staff, and their communities.

The change is also specifically targeted to schools that have implemented a universal masking policy. U.S. and Maine CDCs recommend universal indoor masking by all students, faculty, staff, and visitors in K–12 schools, regardless of vaccination status, across all school-based and school-sponsored activities. Wearing a mask has been proven to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Local school boards are charged with the responsibility of implementing masking requirements for their school systems. Schools that do not have a universal masking policy should continue contact tracing.

Since the fall of 2020, all Maine pre-K-12 schools have been providing in-person instruction to students. Throughout the pandemic, the Mills Administration has promoted safe, in-person learning, dedicating $329 million in Coronavirus Relief Funding (CRF) to Maine schools to help them educate Maine students. The Administration has also provided 10,859,586 face coverings, gloves, and other types of personal protective equipment to Maine schools and has supported COVID-19 testing in schools, including launching a pooled testing program. The pooled testing guidance has also been streamlined in light of Omicron, and schools have received 242,500 rapid antigen BinaxNOW tests from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The Administration has helped organize vaccine clinics for school staff across Maine and supported more than 500 vaccine clinics for schools and students this past fall.

According to Maine’s Vaccination Dashboard, as of January 12, 2022, 51.5 percent of children ages 5 to 19 were fully vaccinated for COVID-19. Data from the U.S. CDC show that Maine ranks fourth best in the nation in the percent of 5 to 17 year olds fully vaccinated. As of the end of October, 83 percent of school staff were fully vaccinated.

The updated public health guidance for responding to a positive case of COVID-19 in schools can be viewed HERE.