More than half of Maine's schools have opted into a state-sponsored pool testing program through which schools send batches of test samples to a lab that tests up to 25 samples at a time, rendering faster results. Credit: Brittany Murray / The Orange County Register/SCNG via AP

As a new school year punctuated by a surge in virus cases and school outbreaks gets underway, more than half of Maine schools plan to rely on regular testing as one strategy to contain COVID-19’s spread.

That testing will happen through a company that inked a deal with Maine earlier this year and will conduct batch-testing to return results quickly, letting schools know how widely the virus is spreading among students and employees. 

Concentric, a branch of Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks, is also conducting pool testing in Arizona, California, North Carolina, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. 

“Maine signed up and has helped shape a nationwide program,” said Matthew McKnight, chief commercial officer of Ginkgo Bioworks and an Orono native. 

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Nearly 500 people in the district of 1,287 students have signed up for pool testing so far, Doty said. 

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. 

Several other districts are still working to start their programs, including Brewer.

One of the chief advantages to pool testing is that it detects coronavirus cases among children displaying no symptoms, McKnight said. Children with the coronavirus are more likely than adults to have minor or no symptoms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“You are preventing outbreaks by testing and catching an asymptomatic carrier,” he said. “You leave that person in circulation, they’re going to infect five to eight people very easily.” 

Misinformation about COVID-19 is rife across the nation and Ginkgo’s leaders acknowledge they are not immune from it. They said there were misconceptions about pool testing, from the testing being a painful, deep nasal swab — it is not — to more outlandish conspiracy theories.

The program’s developers are hopeful that the 336 Maine schools that have not yet signed up will do so. They’re also hoping that the schools that are enrolled will continue to see more students and staff members opt in to ensure the most accurate data possible. 

“Testing is easy. It’s simple. It’s non-invasive,” McKnight said. “It’s just a good tool that parents and families can use to prevent these massive shutdowns in our country.”