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Maine's Effort To Regularly Test Students For COVID Is Straining School Staff

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Schools across the country are entering their third school year affected by the pandemic. And with the delta variant surging, schools in Maine are hoping that a tool called pooled testing can keep kids in the classroom. In some districts, a shortage of labor is already challenging those efforts. Maine Public Radio's Robbie Feinberg has more.

ROBBIE FEINBERG, BYLINE: On the steps outside of Clinton Elementary School, sixth grader Wyatt Hanson rips open a tiny plastic bag and pulls out a thin testing swab just a few inches long.

WYATT HANSON: You open the package. You grab it from the tip. And you have a little white end on it.

FEINBERG: Hanson says he was nervous the first time he stuck a swab up his nose. An earlier COVID test brought tears to his eyes.

WYATT: This was a lot better than those ones because you just have to put it in where you're comfortable, swirl it around around four times in both nostrils, and then you're done.

FEINBERG: Each week, swabs from Hanson and several other students are all mixed together into one test tube. The test tube is then sent to a lab, and the whole batch gets tested together. If it comes back positive, each student in the batch will get tested again in order to isolate the source of the virus. The process is playing out every week in hundreds of classrooms across Maine, all part of a strategy that local and state officials hope will keep schools open even amidst the delta variant surge.

EMILY POLAND: So I think the fact that we are - this is where we are right now - it makes frequent testing even more important.

FEINBERG: Emily Poland is the school nurse consultant with the Maine Department of Education. This fall, the state is spending more than $40 million to supply hundreds of schools with everything from swabs to staffing to help administer the tests each week, all free of charge. Poland says if a student participates in a weekly testing and is asymptomatic, they won't have to stay home from class or after-school activities if they're considered a close contact of a positive case. She says that's because those students are being closely monitored through testing, which should catch the virus earlier, even at low levels.

POLAND: So testing kids on an ongoing basis would be able to identify cases very early and prevent transmission from happening in the school.

FEINBERG: Schools say they've welcomed the state's help after a year in which some students were forced to stay home for months because of COVID-19. But Maine is dealing with the same labor shortage facing states across the country, and that's already challenged the program's launch. Several districts say they're still waiting for new staff members that were promised to them by state contractors. Last month the Mt. Blue Regional School District in western Maine put out a job posting in hopes of hiring its own pooled testing coordinator with little success.

LAURA COLUMBIA: We haven't been able to find anyone yet, so it's probably going to be me.

FEINBERG: The district's curriculum coordinator, Laura Columbia, says she may have to set aside some of her other duties to help collect forms and mail out samples each week.

COLUMBIA: When it comes down to it, having kids in school - that's my No. 1 priority. So if we're not able to find someone, like, things will just have to shift on what my priorities are to keep kids in school.

FEINBERG: And some local and state officials worry that the additional burden could ultimately fall on school nurses, who they say are already overworked as they manage caseloads and contact tracing. But even as they wait on staff, districts say they're still mostly optimistic about the program. After two tumultuous school years disrupted by the virus, they're hoping pooled testing will mean fewer interruptions and more learning in the year ahead.

For NPR news, I'm Robbie Feinberg in Clinton, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.