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With COVID-19 Cases On The Rise And Holidays Approaching, Maine Schools Weigh Extra Precautions

Mary Altaffer
Associated Press
Christine Free teaches a remote music class during the coronavirus outbreak at the Osborn School, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Rye, N.Y.

Daily COVID-19 cases set another record in Maine on Tuesday, but a bright spot, according to state public health officials, is that public schools have not been a major source of transmission. Yet with the virus continuing to spread, and holiday travel on the horizon, some school officials are considering additional precautions.

Gardiner parent Meaghan Carlson says she was nervous this summer as she considered whether to send her two daughters back to school. But with Maine’s low case rates at the time and precautions in place such as masks, social distancing and small class sizes, she decided the risks had been sufficiently lowered.

“And my kids, honestly, were freaking out,” Carlson says. “They were really, really ready to see people again. I’ve never seen them so excited to go to school, and it was the best day ever, and they loved school.”

But earlier this month, as cases began to rise sharply across the state and in Carlson’s local district, her daughter’s school went temporarily remote before reopening again. Carlson says her daughters have been affected by the uncertainty of the changing schedule.

“But going back to school, and then trying to go back to their two-day-a-week, three-day, doing something at home, going back to school, that felt really stressful,” she says. “And I can tell that the kids were stressed by it.”

For now, Carlson’s kids are back at school. But she worried that it will just be a matter of time before they close again. And it’s why she’d like to see the school stay remote for the time being. She’s not alone.

In Lewiston, School Committee Member Kiernan Majerus-Collins acknowledges that remote learning is not the same as face-to-face instruction, “but the reality is that we have totally failed to stop the spread of this disease.”

“And that requires an all-hands-on-deck mobilization to do everything we can to stop the spread. And unfortunately, that means that the most responsible thing to do is to switch to remote learning until the disease is under control,” he says.

So far, those concerns have yet to lead to any major changes, either locally or statewide. On Monday night, Majerus-Collins introduced a motion to move to remote learning, but it was rejected by other school board members.

And public health officials say that schools in Maine have remained relatively safe, even as cases keep rising. While 196 cases have been detected in Maine schools over the last 30 days, state CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah says that most of those appear to have come from within the community.

“What we have detected thus far into the school year is very little transmission of COVID-19 within the walls of the school,” Shah said at a briefing earlier this week.

Some schools have voluntarily moved from full, in-person learning to a hybrid model in recent weeks. And last week, the Augusta School Department announced that students would work fully remotely during the week after Thanksgiving to proactively limit spread of the virus following the holiday.

In a letter to families and staff, Superintendent James Anastasio said that with all of the elementary schools in the city detecting at least one case of the virus, “there is an increasing concern that more cases could force the temporary closure of a school or schools.”

Steve Bailey, with the Maine School Management Association, says that so far, he has been impressed with overall adherence to precautions, which has limited spread of COVID-19. But he expects more schools will begin announcing similar plans to go fully remote for a week or two during the holiday season.

“And in places where they think that, ‘Well, it hasn’t been that great yet, in terms of the spread, can we chance it?’ At the same time, these school officials are very worried, as well as cautious, about what’s going to come back after that holiday time period,” Bailey says.

Bailey says schools are also sending home letters with a specific message: that if families want to keep schools safe, and open, over the next few months, they should consider limiting travel and family gatherings this holiday season.