BAR HARBOR — Mount Desert Island Regional School System officials are looking for ways to further reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections.
The school system board voted Monday night to “task the administration to provide within three weeks a report with ways we can refine and improve COVID mitigation strategies.” The vote was 14-2, with Patrick Skeate and Robin Sue Tapley voting no.
The vote came at the end of a lengthy discussion about whether and to what extent to require students to participate in pooled testing for the COVID virus.
In pooled testing, groups of about a dozen people each swirl a Q-Tip in their nostrils once a week. The swabs are sent to a laboratory, and the results usually come back the next day.
If the result for the whole group is negative, then no one in the group has the virus. If the result is positive, then everyone in the group is tested individually to detect the active infection.
The Maine Department of Education calls it “an effective tool to identify positive cases without the logistical and financial burden of regular individual testing.”
Currently, student and staff participation in pooled testing is voluntary. As of Oct. 8, 95 percent of staff and 75 percent of students at MDI High School were fully vaccinated against COVID. That means about 127 students were not vaccinated.
As for participation in pooled testing, the rate was 87 percent among high school staff and 59 percent among students.
Some school board members expressed support for making pooled testing mandatory for everyone.
“I don’t see a reason not to require pooled testing,” board member Keri Hayes said. “There is nothing about pooled testing that is going to injure anyone. It’s just gathering information so that all of us understand what the risks are and where we all stand in our schools.”
But board member Tom Reeve said, “We should target our pooled testing to be more efficient and maximize the effectiveness of our resources.”
Dr. Julius Krevans, an internal medicine specialist at MDI Hospital who spoke about COVID mitigation measures earlier in the school board meeting, said unvaccinated students who participate in extra-curricular activities are, in general, the most likely to spread the disease.
“If you have multiple unvaccinated persons in a group and it is a higher-risk activity, the person at greatest risk is the unvaccinated and uninfected person,” Krevans said.
He cited wrestling as an example. And he said the chance of being infected by someone from a visiting team during a match is lower than the disease spreading among members of the same team who practice together several hours a week.
Later in the meeting, during the school board’s discussion of possibly mandating pooled testing, Reeve said, “Should we target extra-curricular activities because that’s where the biggest concern is? Or do we need to target those who are not vaccinated and do extra-curricular activities? Or do we need to target (some other groups)?”
Board member Marie Yarborough said mandatory pooled testing would present different challenges for the high school and elementary schools.
“The elementary schools don’t have the extra hands that they do at the high school,” she said. “In order for us to move forward, we need some information about…what the capacity is at each elementary school, which is vastly different from what it is at the high school.”
But she expressed concern that universal mandatory testing might be more than any of the schools could handle.
Someone asked whether mandatory pooled testing for some groups might mean that some other students who want to participate voluntarily would be squeezed out.
“I think we can get a little more targeted toward the unvaccinated and a little more targeted toward the extra-curricular and still have testing available for all those who want to opt in,” Reeve said.
In the end, the board decided to wait for recommendations from school administrators before taking any action.