MDI High School of Bar Harbor. Credit: Nick Sambides Jr. / BDN

The school system on Mount Desert Island will become one of the first public school districts in Maine to regularly test employees for the coronavirus. The testing, which will start in early December as the state and Hancock County are seeing a surge in new cases, will serve as a barometer for how actively the virus is spreading in the communities the school system serves.

Working with Mount Desert Island Hospital, the Mount Desert Island Regional School System will soon begin testing 300 employees who work with students — such as teachers, food service workers and bus drivers — to detect any existing cases and establish a baseline for ongoing testing, according to Superintendent Marc Gousse.

After that, the school system will choose about 100 staff members to test twice a week until the end of the school year, in June 2021, Gousse said. If an employee tests positive, the staffer will be removed from the list of regularly tested employees and another will be added.

“If we’re able to accomplish the testing through our employees, that will give us the indicator as to whether there is any community spread,” Gousse said. “Students may not be included for two reasons: We don’t have the same capacity we would in normal times with our students, and we don’t have the financial resources to cover both staff and students.”

The testing program will cost about $80,000 and be funded by almost equal grants from Bar Harbor Bank & Trust and the Rural Health Hospital Program.

Weekly testing has been part of the reopening strategy for Maine colleges and universities, but so far not many school districts have offered regular testing to students or staff. Experts say safety protocols including mandated use of face coverings, social distancing and smaller class sizes seem to be working well to prevent large-scale transmission of the virus at schools.

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While there have been outbreaks at a number of schools since September and 259 COVID-19 cases have been associated with school students and staff in the past 30 days, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said outbreaks at schools are generally indicative of community transmission.

The Maine CDC does not have a strong recommendation when it comes to offering testing at schools.

“It’s not as if there is absolutely one way to go. There are multiple different opportunities. And so we don’t have a strong recommendation one way or the other, but we do recognize that different school districts will go in different directions.”

The state has facilitated school testing during outbreaks, such as one at Sanford High School earlier this fall, and it’s making part of its allotment of rapid antigen tests from the federal government available to schools, as well as several other kinds of entities. Schools have to apply for the testing instruments.

While Hancock County has seen one of the lowest infection rates in the state throughout the pandemic, the coastal region has seen infections surge in recent weeks, along with the rest of the state. As of Sunday, the county recorded 73 active cases among residents, up from 10 four weeks earlier, on Oct. 25. For the past two weeks, the state Department of Education has had Hancock County on a watch list for a potential downgrade of its school safety rating to yellow, which would mean it’s unsafe for schools in the county to be open full-time in person. That attention from the state has come because Hancock County has recorded a higher rate of new cases than the state as a whole.

Despite the cost, continuing to offer testing will be a priority for the Mount Desert Island school system. Gousse said he plans to budget another $80,000 to continue the testing program for the 2021-22 school year.

“COVID is going to be here for a while, even with a vaccine, and we want to continue to know that our students, our staff and our schools are safe, so we’re planning for the long haul,” he said.

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