A cutout of former President John F. Kennedy occupies a seat next to seventh grader Reilly Sullivan at the Bruce M. Whittier Middle School, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, in Poland, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine will begin offering optional universal COVID-19 testing at all K-12 schools in May through a new partnership that relies on “pooled” viral tests to check many samples at once.

The plan to increase testing comes as schools have accounted for the majority of COVID-19 outbreaks in Maine over the past few months, according to data from Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, although most outbreaks have been small, with only one school seeing more than 20 cases. It also comes as more than half of Maine adults have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine, but children aged 15 and younger are not yet eligible to get vaccinated.

Through a partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks, Maine will offer pooled testing to all public and private K-12 schools once a week. The testing involves collecting samples from groups of students or staff and testing them in a batch or “pool.” If a pool comes back positive, then all individuals whose samples were included in that pool are tested individually. The method allows for more people to be tested while using fewer resources, as fewer individual tests are needed.

Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday that the testing was a way to quickly determine whether anyone in a school or class could transmit the virus.

“Kids go to school, they all get their swabs, they put it into one vial per certain number of swabs, that classroom gets tested, we know the next day — maybe two days later, but mostly the next day — if anyone in that classroom, teacher, child or staff, is positive,” Lambrew said.

The program is not mandatory, but any K-12 school, as well as pre-K programs, may participate. Schools will collect consent forms from parents in order for their children to participate in the program. According to Maine DHHS, similar programs are already in use in other states, including Massachusetts.