Cliff Island School students search for items such as birch bark, feathers and lichens outside their one-room schoolhouse on March 4, 2021. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine students will no longer be required to wear masks outdoors or skip school events after a COVID-19 exposure if their schools are participating in the state’s pooled testing program, according to updated state rules.

The new rules — which were only lightly promoted on Monday — come as Maine rolls out the testing option in the final month of the school year. The state is set to loosen many restrictions on businesses in the coming weeks due to increasing vaccination rates among adults, but schools remain an issue with no vaccines approved for children under age 12.

The latest move from the Maine Department of Education loosens several key restrictions for schools that participate in Maine’s pooled testing program. The changes provide insight into how the state may plan to keep COVID-19 under control while returning to full time in-person learning if young children are still not eligible for vaccines next fall.

Many of the updates are contingent upon at least 30 percent of students and staff participating in pooled testing. Schools have to opt into the program and parents must give permission for their children to participate.

The testing plan, which was announced in late April and will also be used for the 2021-22 school year, aims to test more people with fewer resources each week, allowing schools to get ahead of potential COVID-19 outbreaks. The process relies on testing samples from a group of people — such as students sharing a classroom — at once and delivers results within 48 hours. If the pooled sample tests positive, everyone in the group is tested individually using rapid tests.

At schools participating in the program, students will no longer be required to be seated at least 3 feet apart indoors, although the distance is still recommended when possible, the state said. The updated guidelines also eliminate distancing requirements for adults, reflecting that teachers and school staff have been eligible to receive vaccines since early March.

Additionally, unvaccinated students tested on a weekly basis will not be required to quarantine from school-related events even if they are a close contact of a person who tests positive for COVID-19, according to the guidelines. Students will instead be able to come to school and get tested at the next regular opportunity if they are not exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.

Twenty schools and districts are signed up for the program so far, according to the Maine Department of Education, with more set to attend webinars about the program in the coming week.

The updated guidance also says that fully vaccinated people are likewise no longer required to quarantine if exposed to the virus. Kids are no longer required to wear masks outside, even if they are closer than 6 feet apart, a decision following Maine’s decision to remove its outdoor mask mandate based on evidence that outdoor transmission is rare. Students will also be permitted to be closer together when playing musical instruments, with a 6-foot distance requirement instead of 14 feet.

The guidelines leave several key requirements in place. Masks will still be required indoors regardless of vaccination status, and students will still be required to maintain a 6-foot distance when unmasked and eating and drinking.