The move, which begins next week, represents a change in how the district has decided to implement the state’s reopening requirements for schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Only 50 to 60 percent of students are routinely reporting that they’ve completed the daily checks, according to an email Thursday from the district’s communications coordinator, Tess Nacelewicz. The change was communicated to staff in a memo from Superintendent Xavier Botana on Tuesday and families will be notified Friday.
“I want you to know that in an effort to maximize our nurses’ ability to track and monitor cases, our current ‘symptom check’ screening will be changing,” Botana wrote in the memo to staff. “We have known all along that many COVID infections are asymptomatic. Additionally, we have struggled to ensure that responses to the ‘School Messenger’ screening tool are completed prior to students coming to school.
“As a result, nurses and other school staff are using valuable time following up on non-compliance with the symptom check and rescreening students.”
Botana said that starting Monday the district will send an email reminder to families each day, asking them to screen their students for symptoms of COVID-19 before sending them to school. However, the district won’t be asking families to verify they’ve completed the symptom check.
Currently families get a daily message via text or email with a link to a survey. They are asked to respond to one question letting the district know if they’ve completed the district’s screening checklist and answered “no” to all the questions.
“Our focus will shift to educating all families about COVID-19 symptoms and stressing the importance of not sending sick students to school,” Botana said in the memo.
The change comes as Maine sees a spike in COVID-19 cases, with daily records of new cases set both Wednesday and Thursday of this week. As of Wednesday there were five active cases in Portland schools and 91 students and staff were in quarantine as a result of coming in close contact with infected individuals.
The Maine Department of Education is requiring that all schools have students and staff complete daily symptom checks prior to boarding buses or entering school buildings. The state symptom screening tool for schools includes such questions as whether an individual has had a fever; feels sick with symptoms such as fever or cough; has had contact with a person with COVID in the last 14 days; or has traveled out of state in the last 14 days.
DOE spokeswoman Kelli Deveaux said each district is determining if and how they are collecting confirmation from families on the completion of the self-screening. Some ask questions upon students’ arrival at buildings or on the bus, while others might use apps or Google forms, Deveaux said.
At a school board meeting Oct. 21, Botana said getting students to comply with the symptom check verification has been a struggle and added to the work school staff have at the start of the day. Communication challenges have also been a factor in ensuring compliance, as about 1,000 families do not get school emails or have not opted into text messages, he said. There are about 6,750 students in Portland schools.
Botana said most neighboring districts use an honor system when it comes to symptom checks. “They continue to send a reminder on a daily basis or weekly basis to families to remind them they need to do symptom checks and then just trust those are done,” he said. “Otherwise at the school level staff identify students who may be displaying symptoms and refer those to the nurse to be able to intervene.”
Carrie Foster, president of the Portland Education Association, said the union worked with the district on the change and also gathered feedback from school nurses in half a dozen school districts. “We’ll still be sending daily reminders, and we’ll continue to closely monitor ourselves and students for symptoms,” Foster said in an email. “Our nurses vetted and recommended a better system, though, and they are very good at what they do.”
In South Portland, Superintendent Ken Kunin said the district has not required any verification of symptom checks, relying instead on an educational approach and stressing the importance of completion to families and staff. The district provided laminated copies of the state’s screening tool and thermometers to all families and communicated the expectation in multiple languages, Kunin said.
He said students and staff are taking the requirement seriously and while the district is not keeping data on symptom check completion, they are tracking and responding to COVID-related concerns when they arise.
“We have found parents and staff have been doing them pretty consistently and have been calling the school (if a problem arises),” Kunin said. “If they call and talk to a clerk, a nurse calls them back or if they stay home a nurse will call them. We’ve found families and staff have taken it seriously, have been getting in touch with us and are either keeping students, or for staff themselves, home as appropriate.”
In Biddeford and Dayton, Superintendent Jeremy Ray said the district sends text messages each morning to families with a link to a form to fill out with symptom check questions. When families return the form, the data are automatically uploaded into a Google spreadsheet that highlights concerns for nurses and staff.
“I think for us in Biddeford this is something we will continue to do,” Ray said. “I think it gives everyone peace of mind. It helps us support families who might have questions about whether they should send their kids to school, and what we’ve found is when we have some possible concerns this information has been crucial to us.”