Front entrance sign to Presque Isle Middle School. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A group of Aroostook County parents wants Presque Isle school administrators to do more to keep students in school and out of quarantine.

For Maine school districts, the debate on how strict COVID-19 guidelines should be has often divided school board meetings along political lines. Those supporting universal masking and other prevention measures pit themselves against those who are opposed to all or most Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

But many Presque Isle area parents claim that it is not politics fueling their frustration with quarantine rules. After seeing their children quarantined multiple times this fall, usually with mild or no COVID-19 symptoms, they question whether a more effective option could replace the 10-day quarantine.

“We’re not anti-masks or anti-vaccines. We’re pro-questions and pro-data,” said Nathan Berry of Mapleton, whose children attend Presque Isle High School and Middle School. “This has never been a pandemic for children. It’s a pandemic for the elderly and the vulnerable.”

Along with other parents, Berry has begun the private Facebook group Aroostook County Parents Standing Up for Kids, which has more than 700 members. They are urging local school boards and administrators to question the CDC about alternatives to 10-day quarantines, including Test to Stay.

Test to Stay involves testing students daily. Close contacts with negative results can remain in school as long as they continue to test negative.

A United Kingdom study found that only 2 percent of close contacts signed up for Test to Stay tested positive for COVID-19. The study’s authors recommended daily testing as a “safe alternative” to 10-day quarantines.

Presque Isle area schools, which follow Maine CDC protocols for COVID-19, implemented pooled testing this fall after cases began rising among students and staff. The school district wanted to catch cases earlier and decrease the number of people who need to quarantine, Superintendent Ben Greenlaw said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has publicly said that there is not enough evidence to support implementing Test to Stay.

But schools in Massachusetts, New York, California and Georgia have used that option. Utah recently passed a law requiring all schools to use Test to Stay. Though Massachusetts’ rollout  experienced setbacks due to staff shortages, the method has decreased quarantines for close contacts without causing outbreaks.

When asked about Test to Stay, Maine CDC director Nirav Shah referred to the Standard Operating Procedures for schools, which outline how administrators and staff must respond to COVID-19 exposure. He also touted the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines.

“Vaccination is the best path to reducing the need for quarantine,” Shah said.

The Maine CDC defines close contacts as anyone within 6 feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more. The protocols exclude fully vaccinated students and staff from 10-day quarantines.

Presque Isle schools have seen a substantial increase in the number of COVID-19 cases compared with last year at this time. During the previous school year, no positive cases were recorded until Dec. 3.

But as of Nov. 29, SAD 1 in Presque Isle has recorded 77 cases in November alone, with 200 close contacts. This school year alone, the district has recorded 116 positive cases, with 725 close contacts total. At least eight of those close contacts tested positive after being sent home, Greenlaw said.

Thus far 625 students and staff have signed up for the voluntary pooled testing program in a district that now has 1,675 students across all schools.

Once a week cohorts of students conduct nose-swab tests and place them in a “pool.” If one student tests positive, rapid tests are conducted on all other students. Those in the pool who test negative remain in school but close contacts outside the pool still must quarantine.

Pooled testing has led to a “significant decrease” in the number of students quarantining, Greenlaw said. He would like to see more parents consider signing up their children.

“Last Friday we had five cases, but zero close contacts who had to quarantine due to pooled testing,” Greenlaw said. “We would be quarantining far more students without the [pooled testing and other] exceptions.”

Greenlaw said that he would support a Test to Stay option, if the Maine CDC approved it. Parents who spoke at the district’s recent board meeting said that administrators should do more to encourage the agency to approve Test to Stay.

Kylan Wilcox, 13, has been deemed a close contact of a positive COVID-19 case five times this school year, her father Keith Wilcox of Presque Isle said.

“My daughter is part of the over 99 percent of close contact kids who have never had COVID,” Wilcox said. “There is no reason for us to continue punishing healthy kids if we’re practicing social distancing and wearing masks.”

Wilcox is among those who want SAD 1 to consider holding a public meeting that would give parents a longer forum to discuss their concerns.

Greenlaw and SAD 1 board Chairperson Lucy Richard have not been in favor of a special meeting, citing the board’s inability to change the Maine CDC’s protocols the schools use. Any changes need to be approved by the Maine CDC.

“We appreciate the parents who spoke up. They made good points that we will be talking about with the superintendent,” Richard said.

But reassurance from the school board isn’t enough to deter parents from making their voices heard, Berry said.

“We don’t want to abuse the school board. We want to share our stories,” Berry said. “A lot of people probably don’t know how hard it’s been for our kids.”