The Maine Department of Education will allow schools with mandatory masking to stop identifying the close contacts of those who have tested positive for COVID-19 as the highly contagious omicron variant has proven overwhelming for school nurses.
The policy change came just 13 days after the department released new guidelines allowing students infected with the virus to come back to school faster. The rules will apply to the vast majority of Maine’s school districts, as most have indoor mask requirements.
Schools have commonly used contact tracing as a tool to contain local spread since the beginning of the pandemic. Commonly, school nurses identify those who have potentially been exposed to someone who tested positive, to advise them to quarantine in an effort to contain the virus.
But with the omicron variant spreading person-to-person so easily and quickly, experts have begun to wonder whether contact tracing is an efficient way to fight the current surge.
“Trying to catch omicron by contact tracing is like trying to catch a bullet train on a bicycle,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday.
This variant also appears to spread to others during the early part of an infection. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that those infected with COVID-19 are usually contagious two days before symptoms begin, making quick and effective contact tracing especially challenging, the Maine Department of Education said.
“School superintendents have reported that conducting contact tracing in a timely and thorough manner is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for school personnel given the fast spread of the omicron variant,” the department said in a statement.
The arduous process of contact tracing is commonly done by school nurses, who also usually notify the parents of students who are close contacts. Providing districts the option to suspend the practice will allow staff to dedicate more time to other vital COVID-related tasks, including conducting pooled testing, the education department said.
The department did encourage districts that have the resources to effectively contact trace to continue to do so.
The measure was supported by both Maine School Boards Association director Steve Bailey and Maine School Superintendents Association director Eileen King. King said the change “provides some relief to school staff, especially our nurses.”
“Schools with universal masking policies in place for all indoor school sponsored activities will be able to shift their time and attention to other strategies that ensure the physical and emotional health and safety of staff and students,” she said.