Students walk single file and distanced from each other as they walk through the hallways at Brewer Community School in September 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A number of Maine schools have already suspended or scaled back their efforts to identify people potentially exposed to COVID-19, after state education officials gave them the greenlight to do so days ago.

They’re comfortable with the change in part because their own efforts to track the virus’ spread among students and staff, as well as national and international research, have shown that little spread is actually happening in classrooms.

The suspension of contact tracing — the practice of identifying those potentially exposed to the virus so they can quarantine and stop the spread — comes amid debate nationwide about how safe it is to keep students learning in person during the largest surge in COVID-19 cases the country has ever seen.

But with the relative lack of in-school transmission, school officials in Maine and health experts see little justification for going remote.

“Closing schools just for the idea of keeping kids safe doesn’t actually make the most sense from a practical point of view, especially when we’re seeing that spread in schools was as low as we saw it,” said Dr. Tracy Hoeg, a researcher at University of California, Davis and physician with a Ph.D. in epidemiology.

While there will be more cases everywhere from the spread of the more contagious omicron variant, it does not appear a higher rate of students will get infected than before, said Hoeg, who co-authored a study last year examining COVID-19 transmission among Wisconsin students during the fall of 2020.

“We found that the vast majority of transmission, over 95 percent, occurred in the community and not in the schools,” she said. “We would expect that ratio to continue with omicron.”

That’s in part because children are less likely to spread the virus than adults. In addition, Hoeg said, students in schools are generally clustered in cohorts, limiting the number of classmates with whom they interact. And schools have had a range of measures in place throughout the pandemic to prevent the virus’ spread.

“It’s a monitored environment, which is much different than an environment at home where individuals typically are not masked around each other and the potential for spread is there,” said Matt Marston, vice president of Northern Light Health Pharmacy.

The Bangor School Department said Thursday it would suspend contact tracing efforts, which had revealed no in-school virus spread, said Ray Phinney, a school department spokesperson. The school will continue to do pooled testing and is following recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that allow students with the coronavirus to return five days after testing positive if masked at all times.

The school department has an indoor mask requirement.

“Spread of the virus has been attributed to contact outside of school activities, where masking might not be as strictly enforced as in school,” Phinney said.

Stephen Vanidestine, Bangor’s longtime athletic director, said the majority of students had done whatever they could so they could continue playing through the pandemic.

“The student athletes have been outstanding,” said Vanidestine, who said he’s had to remind some students to keep their masks on. “They are so appreciative of being out there and competing.”

Bangor school nurses have stepped up to the challenge of keeping sports going, as have other schools, Vanidestine said. Even teams that didn’t have a mask requirement agreed to wear them when playing Bangor, he said.

“It demonstrates a lot of us athletic directors will come together to make it right for kids,” Vanidestine said.  

Unlike some of its peers, no school in the Bangor School Department has had to go remote since the start of the school year. Phinney attributed that to relatively few cases and safety measures that have included universal masking, pooled testing and department-hosted vaccine clinics for students.

Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said more spread of the virus in schools from omicron is a possibility, and he said the CDC would continue to encourage more vaccinations in the 5- to 11-year-old age group. Only 40 percent of the kids in that age group have received at least one vaccine dose, compared with 72 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds in Maine.

“That’s a concern,” Shah said. “We’d like to see that number higher.”

In Newport-based RSU 19, which will halt contact tracing, more cases from in-school transmission have occurred recently, superintendent Mike Hammer said.

Many students have been infected by someone else in their household, he said. However, that hasn’t stopped some parents from sending infected children to school anyway.

“Parents are sending symptomatic, sick kids to school,” Hammer said. “We’d appreciate it if they would wait and see what happens with the symptoms and get a test.”

Brewer Superintendent Gregg Palmer said it can be a challenge to determine exactly how students contract the virus, though he noted that most transmission appeared to happen outside of school and school activities.  

“Two students ride together to school and then sit in a class next to each other, and both become positive,” Palmer said. “They could have passed it between them in the vehicle or sitting together in class.”

David Walker, superintendent of Old Town-based RSU 34, said school staff have been largely successful in enforcing protective measures, but omicron poses new risks.

“​​​​When the spread is high in the community, obviously risk increases everywhere,” Walker said.  

Hampden-based RSU 22 plans to continue contact tracing at the district’s elementary and middle schools, where student vaccination rates are lower than at Hampden Academy, Superintendent Regan Nickels said.

Nickels said she has seen in-school transmission increase in recent weeks, especially related to sports. While she recognizes that omicron is far more contagious, she believes safety measures can help prevent a flood of new cases.

“With our mitigation measures, in-school spread is being controlled as well, or better, than community transmission rates,” Nickels said.